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Will Erdoğan atone for Turkey’s past sins?

With the controversial "landmine bill" coming back to Parliament after being temporarily withdrawn last Friday by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government, the debate over the "historic apology" by the Turkish prime minister toward Turkey’s minorities looks as if it will continue.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no stranger to raising controversy and stirring up debate. He is known both for his surprising, outspoken statements against the secularist and military establishment in Turkey, and for taking back what he has previously said, or saying or doing the exact opposite. In other words, although his popularity still remains high Ğ if somewhat diminished Ğ his credibility has been tested several times, even by his own followers.

In domestic politics, this has happened often. The international audience got a dramatic introduction with the anti-Israel show put on during the last Davos summit in the presence of Israeli President Shimon Peres, an incident that was followed by an intensive diplomatic effort to restore bilateral relations.

For the Armenian and Greek audience, it happened last week in an unrelated context: While defending his government’s bill to allow foreign companies to take on the job of removing landmines along the Turkish-Syrian border, the prime minister made a half confession about Turkey’s attitude toward its minorities. He called that attitude Ğ that of systematic persecution and expulsion Ğ the result of a "fascist way of thinking."

It was no surprise that one of the two immediately interested recipients of that comment, the Rum, or Greeks who hold Turkish citizenship, detached it from its context Ğ granting state contracts to Israelis Ğ and blew it up as if it was addressed just to them.

The thus-labeled "historic admittance" by Erdoğan about the evil practices of the past secularist Kemalist regime added to the arms cache of the liberal intellectuals in Turkey who are piling up their anti-Kemalist discourse. It also fell on alert ears among the government’s supporters, as it constituted another blow against the Republican People's Party, or CHP, opposition, albeit one pumped out from their country’s common past. Numerous articles and television debates in Turkey were prompted by this statement: Did Erdoğan mean it or not? Is it good or bad? Is it right to call the Turkish Republic a "fascistic" one? And so on. In Greece, "the Turkish apology" took on even bigger proportions, with commentators calling the expected visit by Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on June 20 to attend the official opening of the new Acropolis Museum a suitable platform to carry forward this apologetic attitude into some applicable policies.

Besides anything else, being a member of a minority in Turkey means that you develop a cautious attitude in direct relation to your experience. This is not so with the mainland Greeks. When they talk about Turkey, they tend to indulge in "map exercises" that range from optimism to paranoia but often lack firsthand knowledge of the Turks or Turkey. The Greeks with Turkish citizenship, as part of the history of this country, remain suspicious about everything relating to them and prefer to see deeds before they pronounce their thoughts.

Cautious suspicion

So they were cautiously suspicious of Erdoğan’s statement, claiming Ğ correctly Ğ that they "had heard similar statements in the past, and had been led to expect improvement of [their] conditions in the past, but to no avail."

When it comes to Greek and Turkish liberal analysts, there is a common stance toward Erdoğan. To both sides, he is a hero who is fighting a tough war against the autocratic, secularist, anti-democratic militaristic establishment personified by the official opposition and the military. So far, that is OK.

But when it comes to the application of the brave proclamations, both sides have been characteristically generous with their leniency. For them, making a first step is more important than actually continuing walking until the end of the road. In the case of the relations with Greece, there have been many "first steps" Ğ on both sides, actually Ğ that everyone hailed as a "new beginning." Six years later, we are still waiting for the application of the promised "new policy." I personally face a dilemma: Shall I side with the camp that says, "At least he said it, and that is a good thing, never mind if nothing happens"? Or side with the Rum and their historic memory? Shall I side with the ones who say that it is better to bring up past sins, even if you have no intention to do anything about them, because at least the public becomes familiar with an issue about which it otherwise would have been ignorant or amnesiac? That, even if Erdoğan was actually thinking about how to push the landmine contract to Israeli companies when he referred to the "fascistic attitude" of past Turkish governments, we should be happy about it because he stirred a discussion among the Turkish public Ğ or, as a Greek commentator put it, that "he created an earthquake and many aftershocks"?

I do not know the answer to that. It is the same argument that was put forward about the recent film by Tomris Giritlioğlu, "Autumn Pain," a well-intended phantasmagoric pastiche of the 1955 events of September 6 and 7 against the Greek minority in Istanbul. There, too, I was told it is better to talk about past sins rather than to not talk at all Ğ and that Turkish public opinion is at last learning about its past, albeit in a distorted way. This may be right, to some extent. In a recent random poll of students at Bilgi University, several did not know what Rum means; some thought that they were a community of "1 million people living in Turkey." Similarly, many did not know what the Halki Seminary controversy was about. So, perhaps, for many young people the "historic statement" of the Turkish prime minister may have prompted some of them to try and find out whom he was referring to. Perhaps some who have seen the film have already done so.

My problem is with the credibility and consistency of politicians. The impact of impressive initial statements, promises, proclamations, launches, etc. is so over-projected by a media system that blows the "first shots" out of proportion that whether what has been promised is actually realized in the end does not get so much attention. On this basis, politicians and public figures become popular, get elected and re-elected Ğ while little attention is given to the "follow-up story." This, of course, is not a symptom particular to one country, but a symptom of today’s relationship between media and politics.

In that respect, I think I will side with the Rum and trust their instincts. Which means I will wait and see what will come out of Erdoğan’s statement in terms of the present-day problems of the minorities. Until then, I will try to take everything I hear with a grain of salt.