Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone further than any previous Turkish leader in issuing condolences over the mass killings of Armenians almost a century ago.
In recent years, Turkey’s position on the events which it denies are genocide, have contributed to diplomatic tensions with France, which has a large population of Armenian origin.
It has also complicated ties with the US, where there are periodic attempts to pass Congressional resolutions on the issue – including one that passed the Senate Foreign Relations this month, calling for the remembrance of “the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2014”.
The comments by Turkey’s prime minister are not just an apparent attempt to assuage such tensions just a year ahead of the killings’ 100th anniversary, but could also herald a broader push to heal regional tensions and improve the image of his administration, which has increasingly been labelled authoritarian.
In a statement issued in nine languages – including west and east Armenian – the prime minister acknowledged the “particular significance” of April 24th “for our Armenian citizens and for all Armenians around the world”.
While up to recent years references to an Armenian genocide risked criminal prosecution in Turkey, Mr Erdogan argued that “expressing different opinions and thoughts freely on the events of 1915” was a requirement of pluralism, “democracy and modernity” and issued his condolences to the grandchildren of the Armenians who died.
“Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences – such as relocation – during the first world war, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion. towards one another,” he said.
Richard Giragosian, the Director of the Regional Studies Centre, an Armenia-based think-tank, labelled the comments as a “historic first prime ministerial statement on the issue” that could soften Mr Erdogan’s image ahead of August presidential elections in which he is increasingly expected to run.
But Mr Giragosian added that he considered the prime minister’s comments still “did not go far enough or fast enough”.
Ankara has also been deepening ties with Azerbaijan, which has a festering territorial dispute with Armenia and which is becoming one of the biggest direct foreign investors in Turkey, with a range of infrastructure projects.
In his remarks, Mr Erdogan also restated Turkey’s position that a joint historical commission with access to Turkey’s archive should be set up to study the events of 1915 – a commission Armenia argues is unnecessary to look into such well-documented events. Yerevan says up to 1.5m Armenians died, while Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who coined the word “genocide” in the 1940s, based part of his work on the massacre of Armenians.
Meanwhile, the Armenian National Committee of America, a prominent US-based organisation, labelled Mr Erdogan’s comments a “patently transparent attempt to mute international condemnation”.
Mr Erdogan’s comments come amid widespread expectations that Turkey could soon also seal a deal, which has already been largely negotiated, to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, which were downscaled in the wake of tensions following the Israeli military’s killing of nine Turks in a flotilla seeking to break the Gaza blockade in 2010.
Ankara is also backing a longer-shot bid to end the 40-year partition of Cyprus, and has already hosted a delegation from the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south of the island, with which it has no formal diplomatic ties.
Ozdem Sanberk, a former senior Turkish diplomat, warned that such regional issues remained recalcitrant, although he added that “we are not so far from a happy ending” on Israeli-Turkey ties. He also argued that Mr Erdogan’s attempt to deploy empathy and a change of tone on Armenia was “a completely new narrative”.
Mr Sanberk added: “Let’s not get over-optimistic: it is a very difficult issue in the psychs of both nations, but this could be a way forward.”