In six weeks’ time, on April 24, Armenia and Turkey will hold competing centennial commemorations, each studying the international guest list to see who did and did not come.
It is a political row that could easily have been avoided if the Turkish government had moved its ceremony honoring the Battle of Gallipoli only one day later, to April 25. It has been obvious for many years that on April 24 Armenians will commemorate the centenary of the tragedy of 1915 they now know as the Armenian Genocide. They first marked that day in 1919 in British-administered Istanbul. In 1915, April 24 was the day that 200 Armenian leaders and intellectuals were arrested by the Ottoman authorities as a prelude to the mass deportation and partial destruction of the entire Armenian population of the empire.
The following day, April 25, 1915, British imperial forces, along with men from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps or ANZAC in the forefront, landed at Gallipoli to try and capture Istanbul and defeat the Ottoman empire. Thousands of soldiers died. Very soon April 25 was known as ANZAC day.
April 25 was therefore the obvious day to hold international commemorations for the Gallipoli battles. Another possible date would have been March 18, the day in 1915 when the Allied force first sailed up the Straits and began the campaign. On that day in 1934, a moving and famous speech written by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal (soon to be renamed Ataturk) was delivered. In it the mothers of his former adversaries were told to “wipe away their tears,” and that “there is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.”
However, current Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chose to hold the Gallipoli centennial ceremonies on April 24, precipitating a direct clash with the commemorations in Yerevan. The obvious conclusion is that this was a direct attempt to divert attention and guests from the Armenian commemorations.
By doing this, Erdoğan undid some of the good work he had done last year by issuing the first ever statement of condolences to the Armenians by a Turkish leader.
And it was also a political miscalculation. The Today Zaman newspaper reported on February 21 that preparations for the Gallipoli ceremonies had been suspended because “only five countries have accepted the invitation and they will not be represented by high-level officials.”
Official sources then dismissed the report, noting that Today Zaman is affiliated with Turkey’s new opposition, the Gulenist movement.
Even if it does go ahead, the Gallipoli ceremony lacks international resonance. It is fundamentally a story for six nations: Turkey, Australia, France, Great Britain, India, and New Zealand. Prince Charles will be coming from Britain, but there will be no high-level American guest for example.
Gallipoli and the Armenian deportations already had unfortunate connections that were best kept separate. The paranoid Young Turks may well have arrested the Armenian leaders as a kind of pre-emptive strike against presumed “fifth columnists” ahead of the anticipated Allied landings. The moving 1934 speech at Gallipoli was delivered on behalf of Ataturk by Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya, one of the Ottoman officials directly in charge of the Armenian deportations.
More recently, the Turkish government suggested it might not invite officials from New South Wales to the ceremony, after that Australian state parliament passed an Armenian genocide resolution.
For the government of Armenia, having a big turnout in Yerevan on April 24 is probably the main priority for 2015. (Although they would not say it out loud, it is probably a bigger priority than getting a genocide recognition resolution in the U.S. Congress.)
The Armenians have already secured the presence of French President Francois Hollande in Yerevan. And it is likely that a senior U.S. official, perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry, will attend as well.
Turkey has changed so much in the last few years that there will also be an Armenian remembrance ceremony on Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul that same evening.
Fortunately, those who want to attend the ceremonies in both in Yerevan and in Istanbul—where the fateful events of April 24, 1915 actually occurred—may be able to do both. The travel company that runs the air link between Istanbul and Yerevan is planning to organize a special charter flight so that people can be part of the commemorations in both cities on the same day.