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Tuesday, 23 January, 2001, 10:27 GMT
Bitter history of Armenian genocide row
Armenia
Armenians believe 1.5m of their ancestors were killed
By Chris Morris in Istanbul

In a country where the interpretation of history is still a sensitive political issue, the allegation of genocide has raised a political storm.

Turkey had warned France it faced substantial retaliation for passing a bill which labelled as genocide the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Within days, warnings became action.

A spy satellite contract with a French firm was cancelled, and the future of 10 other lucrative projects was in doubt.

Armenians looking at the body of a boy in Konya during deportations of Armenians during World War I
Appalling atrocities were committed in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire
The Turkish ambassador to France had already been withdrawn for consultations, and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has talked of a serious crisis in bilateral relations.

There have been demonstrations and calls for consumer boycotts. It could take years to repair the damage.

For the Armenian diaspora, though, it has taken decades for them to get their message onto the international agenda. Now they hope to go further, but Turkey intends to fight them all the way.

This bitter dispute is rooted in a violent period of world history, as Europe and much of the Middle East was torn apart by World War I.


The Ottoman Government regarded its Armenian citizens as 'the enemy within'

Everyone involved knows there were appalling atrocities committed in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire.

During the war, the Armenians fought with the Russians, the Turks with the Germans, and the Ottoman Government regarded its Armenian citizens as "the enemy within".

Modern Turkey admits that thousands of Turks and up to 300,000 Armenians were killed in widespread clashes between 1915 and 1917.

Armenians celebrate
Armenians celebrate getting their message onto the international agenda.
But Armenians insist the number was far higher. They believe 1.5 million of their ancestors were killed in an organised campaign of genocide, designed to wipe out an entire race. Many died on a long march into exile in the Syrian desert.

Both sides produce stacks of documents to back up their arguments, and the Turks say the issue should be left to the historians.

Archive dispute

Many researchers, however, complain that they have not been given full access to the Ottoman archives to make a proper assessment.

And so the dispute rages on. It has now become a serious political issue between Turkey and France, home of the largest Armenian community in western Europe.


The vast majority of Turks regard this as a matter of honour, and an insult to a country which was created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire

Many French politicians who voted in favour of the bill in the National Assembly say they had no intention of condemning modern Turkey, but most Turks think that is exactly what has happened.

There is a strong body of opinion in Turkey which believes that the genocide allegations are part of a broader campaign to discredit Ankara's application for membership of the European Union.

National pride

Now, they fear, other European parliaments will implement similar legislation.

In a country where national pride is so important, and sensitivity to criticism from abroad is so acute, the Armenian genocide debate stirs deep and lasting anger.

The vast majority of Turks regard this as a matter of honour, and an insult to a country which was created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Only a few voices are daring to suggest that Turkey should confront its past with a more open mind.

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See also:

23 Sep 00 | Media reports
Turkey angry at US Armenian genocide move
04 Oct 00 | Europe
Turkey scraps US visit
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