German genocide vote inflames tensions with Turkey

Demonstration against the Armenia Resolution passes the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin Image copyright EPA
Image caption The vote sparked protests in Berlin

A few metres from Berlin's Brandenburg gate, a huge red Turkish flag obscures the summer sky. There are several thousand protesters. There is music, shouting. An old man grins, front teeth missing, and waves a placard: "Germany's Turks reject the accusation of genocide!"

But Germany's MPs do not.

The "genocide" in question happened more than 100 years ago in a corner of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Its forces rounded up the Armenian Christians living in Eastern Anatolia and either killed them or drove them into the desert and left them for dead.

Armenia says 1.5 million people died.

To this day, the Turkish government disputes that figure and denies an organised programme of ethnic cleansing.

But, to Ankara's fury, Germany has joined a list of more than 20 countries which, in effect, officially disagree.

Last week, the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, voted through a resolution that declared the killings an act of genocide.

German MPs recognise Armenian 'genocide' amid Turkish fury

Death threats amid Germany-Turkey 'genocide' row

It has outraged some here - bear in mind Germany is home to almost three million people of Turkish descent.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Protests against the German decision were also held in Turkey

Eleven of the MPs who voted for the motion have Turkish origin.

Already, a group of Turkish lawyers has reportedly filed a complaint accusing them of "insulting Turkishness and the Turkish state".

It has also ignited an extraordinary diplomatic row.

Following the vote, Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador to Germany (not so unusual: it recalled diplomats from both France and Austria under similar circumstances).

But it's the Turkish president, Reycep Erdogan, who has dominated German headlines.

Those MPs of Turkish descent? They should, he said, be given blood tests to "see what kind of Turks they are".

He has accused them of being terrorists and of having tainted blood.

At least one of those politicians has received death threats - Cem Ozdemir, the co-chairman of Germany's green party, is now under police protection.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Green MP Cem Ozdemir is under police protection

The German parliament is horrified; its speaker, Norbert Lammert, declared that an attack on an individual MP was an attack on the whole institution.

And the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has written formally to Ankara, condemning Mr Erdogan's comments as "absolutely taboo".

Merkel under fire

The timing, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, looks terrible.

She championed the EU's deal with Turkey (the EU has offered 6bn euros in return for Ankara holding back asylum seekers) and needs it to hold if she is to keep her promise of reducing migrant numbers (the "closure" of the Balkan route may not be enough).

Just before the Bundestag vote, Mr Erdogan warned her that, if her MPs voted for the resolution, there would be consequences.

No wonder, perhaps, she absented herself from the vote.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mrs Merkel needs a working relationship with President Erdogan

But she hasn't held back from responding to Mr Erdogan's comments now, describing them as "inexplicable".

Mrs Merkel is still smarting from her decision to allow the prosecution of a German comedian who insulted President Erdogan.

There was widespread outrage here at her decision to take action against Jan Boehmermann apparently at the behest of the Turkish leader.

It was perceived in Germany as not just an attack on press freedom but as capitulation to Turkey in order to keep the migrants deal on track.

Many Germans are uncomfortable doing diplomatic business with Turkey full stop.

Not for the first time since the beginning of the refugee crisis, Mrs Merkel's popularity wobbled.

The question now? How damaging will this row be to long-term relations and the EU deal itself? It's hard to say.

The language is fiery and Mr Schulz's intervention significant.

As one German broadcaster remarked, "the visa liberalisation for Turkey moves far into the distant future".

But here's what the new Turkish Prime Minister, Binaldi Yildirim, is reported to have said: "Germany and Turkey are very important allies.

"Turkey will find an appropriate response to the resolution.

"But it will not risk or jeopardise the close relationship."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Turkey's Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, blamed a "racist Armenian lobby" for the resolution

After all, commentators point out, Germany is Turkey's most important trading partner.

Last year, Turkey exported goods worth 14.4bn euros to Germany, which is also, incidentally, the biggest foreign investor in the country.

Mrs Merkel may need Turkey's cooperation in the migrant crisis. But Turkey benefits from the deal too.

There is a sense here in Berlin that the parliamentary resolution catalysed an unfortunate yet predictable row that is largely about sabre-rattling.

It is shocking stuff nonetheless. And it is a painful reminder of Germany's past and its present.

The Bundestag resolution also acknowledged that this country - at the time an ally of the Ottoman Empire - did nothing to stop the genocide.

And, after the war, some of those who directed the killings may have been granted asylum in Germany.

At least two men - who were later assassinated on German soil by Armenian hit-men - are buried here.

A mosque - called the martyrs' mosque - now stands over the site of the old cemetery.

So don't expect the ire from Ankara - or the indignation from Berlin - or the protests from some German Turks to die down quickly.

The Bundestag vote was supposed to be about confronting the past, acknowledging guilt and laying ghosts to rest.

Instead, their voices howl, louder than ever, through Europe.

Armenian genocide dispute:

  • Hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians died in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, whose empire was disintegrating
  • Many of the victims were civilians deported to barren desert regions where they died of starvation and thirst. Thousands also died in massacres
  • Armenia says up to 1.5 million people were killed. Turkey says the number of deaths was much smaller
  • Most non-Turkish scholars of the events regard them as genocide - as do more than 20 states, including France, Germany and Russia, and some international bodies such as the European Parliament
  • Turkey rejects the term "genocide", maintaining many of the dead were killed in clashes during World War One, and that many ethnic Turks also suffered in the conflict

Find out more about what happened

Armenian tragedy still raw in Turkey

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