Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey was ready to "pay the price" for mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915 — if, and only if, an “impartial board of historians” agree the dying Ottoman Empire was truly guilty of the crime.
“If the results actually reveal that we have committed a crime, if we have a price to pay, then as Turkey we would assess it and take the required steps,” Erdogan told state-run TRT channel on Thursday, according to Agence French Presse.
“We are saying, ‘If you are sincere on this matter, then come, let’s leave this to historians, let historians study the issue, let’s open our archives,’” Erdogan continued. “We have opened our archive. We have revealed more than one million documents on this. If Armenia also has an archive, then they should open it too."
Erdogan's comments come a few months before the centenary of the Armenian killings, one of the most disputed and controversial events of the 20th century. In the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, soldiers were accused of killing hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians living in what is now Turkey and deporting many more to what is now modern-day Armenia.
The Turkish government argues that the killings were a result of the widespread chaos of the end of the Ottoman era and that many Turks died too. For almost a hundred years, Turkey has disputed the killings and hit back against the use of the "Armenian genocide" label, widely used by Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. In 2014, the Turkish foreign ministry criticized a U.S. Senate committee resolution that described the killings as a genocide, arguing that it "distorts history and law."
In recent years, Erdogan has made some efforts at conciliation. Just before the 99th anniversary of the killings, he expressed condolences for the "inhumane" incident, a small yet still unprecedented gesture. Some Armenian groups hit back at the comments, however: Armenian Weekly, an English-language Armenian publication from Massachusetts, wrote that the Erdogan had simply used "the age-old 'everyone suffered' denialist refrain." Other comments made by Erdogan haven't helped.
The Turkish president's latest comments are unlikely to placate his biggest critics, who would argue that the historical record on the Armenian killings has already been set. Twenty-five countries currently call the 1915 killings a genocide, and many historians already use the term: In fact, the man who coined the word genocide, Raphael Lemkin, was thinking of the killings of Armenians in what is now Turkey when he created it.
On Twitter, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, called Erdogan's comments "doublespeak."
The anniversary of the Armenian killings will place renewed focus on the matter and a high-profile case at the European Court of Human Rights may draw further headlines. The Turkish government has been accused of attempting to detract attention from the anniversary by hosting centennial commemorations of World War I's Gallipoli Campaign on the same day as Armenia's events, and Erdogan has said he would "actively" challenge a campaign to recognize the events as a genocide.