An inevitable “Meds Yeghern” in Franco-Turkish relations

by Scott Johnson

Franco-Turkish relations for the last 11 years have been anything but smooth. In 2001, passing the National Assembly’s non-binding resolution, France joined the small community of twenty plus states which recognized the Armenian genocide of 1915. Ten years later, it would follow the suit of neighboring Switzerland to make it a crime to deny the genocide.

Since the 2001 resolution did not pass the Senate, the trade volumes between two states grew significantly. The bill was re-introduced in 2006, when the lower house of the French parliament approved the motion and sent it to the Senate where at the urge of French officials and business elite, the bill was dropped. Warning the French government of potential repercussions, the AKP government of Turkey suspended all military and economic ties, among which was the blocking of Gaz de France’s participation in the largest multibillion Nabucco gas pipeline from Turkey to Austria.

The uneasy Franco-Turkish relationship has also been supplemented by the fears of Turkey’s eventual accession to EU. Turkey sees becoming a part of EU as one of its strategic goals, both for economic and political reasons. France worries, Turkey’s rapid development could jeopardize its leadership capabilities within the Union and strongly affect the inflow of Turkish immigration to the West. The Sarkozy government has been therefore an opponent to full accession of Turkey to EU and sought development of bilateral relations with its rivals Armenia and Cyprus instead. Nevertheless, the trade between France and Turkey grew to $13.5 billion in 2011 with an even larger amounts hidden in future big scale contracts. For instance,  with growing Turkish economy, the Tolouse-based Airbus considers Turkey one of the most profitable markets and estimates it would spend close to $50 billion on purchase of airplanes by 2029.

However, with the latest Armenian genocide bill passing the French Senate, despite personal warnings of Prime Minister Erdogan, prospects for economic and political relationships between these two NATO allies are doomed. The government of Turkey has already promised severing ties and undisclosed reactive measures to the dislike of the French government. Military cooperation has already been suspended by Turkey since the bill passed through the lower house of the French parliament. French cargo planes on route to its mission in Afghanistan has to now get a permission for each flight. Arms purchases from France are also likely to come to an end. One of the largest cited deals are the planned purchases of long-range defense missiles from Eurosam worth $4 billion. In case the bill is signed into a law by President Sarkozy, this deal will be abandoned in favor of U.S.-based Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, Russia’s Rosoboronexport or China’s CPMIEC, main competitors in the bidding.

Although the Turkish government stopped short of disclosing all measures it would take as a response to the French law, it is expected that besides closing doors to the French businesses for lucrative deals in Turkey and abandoning defense cooperation, it would also suspend educational, cultural and social projects. Add to that already suggested resolutions, which many lawmakers and observers called the government to pass in relation to Algerian massacres allegedly perpetrated by the French Army in Algeria in 1940s.

For several decades, the Republic of Armenia and Armenian diaspora has been on a long term mission for recognition of massacres of Armenians on Anatolian peninsula and in the Middle East as genocide. Armenians say up to 1.5 million Armenians were either systematically killed or died from hunger in a deliberate campaign by Ottoman Turkish government to exterminate the Armenian people in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey, in turn, accepts that several thousand Armenians were killed in the wake of the brutal war in Anatolia and Middle East, but insists the killings were not a deliberate government action and that they rather were the results of intercommunal warfare between the Turks and Armenians. Turkey contends that supported by Russians, Armenians  massacred just as many Turks in eastern Anatolia and Transcaucasia by guerilla warfare and ethnic cleansing of Turkish areas.

Alongside the European nations, the recognition of the massacres by United States Congress and Presidential Administration have also been the objective of Armenian diaspora. For many years in a row, the U.S. House of Representatives has come close to passing the non-binding resolution but either failed due to lack of supporters among congressmen or was stopped by the administration, as it happened in 2010. In 2009, all eyes were on the newly elected President Barack Obama who had made a pledge for recognition,  but stopped short of using the “G” word during his address to the Armenian-Americans on April 24, 2009. Instead, he used the word combination “Meds Yeghern“, which means “Great Calamity” in Armenian language and always refers to the Armenian massacres. To the discontent of Armenian Americans, President Obama as any other preceding Presidents refrained from using the word insulting the U.S. ally Turkey.

As the Turks are awaiting the next action by the French President Sarkozy, the Franco-Turkish ties are experiencing a “mets yeghern” of its own, which could possibly turn these two NATO allies into adversaries.  

Photo: Courtesy of Flickr

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