As president Jacques Chirac of France received Robert Kocharyan, the Armenian head of state, who arrived in Paris on February 12 for a five-day state visit, Greece issued a decree formally inaugurating a ‘genocide day’ to commemorate the alleged massacre of the Greek community in eastern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s troops in 1922. The Greek move and Kocharyan’s French visit followed the promulgation by Chirac of a law recently passed by the French parliament to acknowledge the ‘Armenian genocide’ of 1915, in which some 1.5 million Christian Armenians were allegedly exterminated. The Greek decision to declare a ‘genocide day’ came after an appeal by Kocharyan, during his French visit, to the leaders of the world to recognise the ‘Armenian genocide’.
The Greek ministry of culture has chosen September 14 to commemorate the alleged massacres. On that date Ataturk’s troops captured the Greek city of Smyrna (now Izmir). This is not the first time the Greeks have raised the issue in public. In 1994 the Greek parliament chose May 19 to mark the flight of Greeks from the shores of the Black Sea between 1916 and 1924. But on the whole the Greeks had managed to bury the bitter memories of those days, and their relations with the Turks in recent years have been soured by territorial disputes over Aegean Sea islands and Cyprus, rather than those memories. After all, Greece knows that it started the operations that led to the fall of Smyrna, and Greek history books never refer to it as genocide, instead describing it as a “catastrophe”.
Athen’s move is bound to infuriate Ankara and to have an adverse effect on relations between the two historical rivals, if the Turkish government’s extremely angry reaction is anything to go by. Turkey and Greece have been engaged in negotiations over their rival claims to islands in the Aegean Sea and over Cyprus. The improvement in relations followed an announcement by Greece last year that it would not veto Turkey’s application to join the European Union.
It is true that the Greek decree is confined to the Smyrna “catastrophe” and does not expressly acknowledge the ‘Armenian genocide’, as the French law does. But it certainly gives credence to the Armenian claim of genocide and reinforces the French support for it. Athens should therefore reasonably expect treatment similar to that meted out to the French by the Turks. Ankara cancelled multibillion-dollar contracts with French companies and suspended talks for further lucrative contracts. The Turkish parliament also introduced a draft law condemning French genocides in Algeria during Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, and other genocides in Indochina and in Turkey itself.
Ankara is justifiably infuriated by the French and Greek moves: they appear to have been timed deliberately to coincide with what has been described as a “decisive moment for Turkey’s future”. The moves came as the European Union parliament began to debate conditions for Turkey’s membership of the Union. The parliament’s decision is needed before EU ministers approve a legal and financial framework for Turkey to prepare for membership. Ankara will in turn publish a national programme of extensive reforms that it must carry out in order to meet the EU’s conditions for membership. Turkey was accepted as a candidate for membership of the EU last year.
But at best Turkey’s entry to the EU is expected to take a long time — if it proves possible at all. Johannes Swoboda, the EU parliament’s rapporteur for the Turkish debate, says that Turkey needs to have a “clear perspective” of its task. “We should give Turkey a three- to five-year period to implement the necessary radical reforms,” he says. “If they don’t achieve the changes in that period, then we need to think about a different kind of partnership, because no country can be a candidate for ever.”
The Greek and French provocations also coincide with Ankara’s negotiations with the IMF and World Bank to help it to carry out the structural changes that the EU demands. The two bodies have already approved a package to enable Ankara to reduce Turkey’s inflation drastically, and to roll back the state’s participation in the country’s economy.
The French and the Greeks have deliberately chosen a moment when they clearly believe that they can extract from Turkey concessions that Ankara would otherwise refuse to make at all. These concessions will benefit both the Armenians and the Greek Cypriots, particularly if Turkey reacts angrily to the pressure being exerted. A strong response from Turkey will reassure the Turkish Cypriots, who fear that any rapprochement between Ankara and Athens will be at their expense. But Armenia will be the main beneficiary of a diplomatic run-in between the two, and of the adverse effect it would have on relations between Turkey and the EU.
The pressure being put on Turkey by France and Greece is intended to persuade it to improve relations with Armenia by reopening the border between them and resuming trade. Both the closure of the border and the suspension of trade were the result of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and dealt a serious blow to the latter’s economy. In fact, the Armenian economy was already in tatters as a result of the clash with its neighbours, which suspended oil-exports and other economic dealings. Despite Yerevan’s victory in the war over Azerbaijan, Armenia is kept afloat only by western and Russian aid and massive financial injections from the Armenian diaspora in the US and Europe.
Resumption of trade and diplomatic ties between Ankara and Yerevan would not only relieve Armenia’s economic plight but also save the donors money and put pressure on Baku to reach a settlement of the conflict on terms more favourable to its adversary. Talks are already in progress between the two, and Turkey’s abandonment of the Azeri cause is bound to strengthen Armenia’s hand. And the Greeks in their turn will certainly enjoy the humiliation of their old rival, driving an even harder bargain in their disputes over Cyprus and Aegean Sea islands.