Recep Tayyip Erdogan said troubled relations between Turkey and the US had sunk to a new low after Joe Biden formally recognised that Armenians suffered a genocide a century ago in lands that are now in Turkey.
But Erdogan stopped short of announcing any retaliatory steps and instead reiterated his desire to work with Turkey’s Nato ally, signalling concern that escalating tensions further could harm its $717bn economy.
Biden on Saturday described the killing of as many as 1.5m Armenians beginning in 1915 as a genocide, departing from previous administrations’ carefully crafted statements issued each Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day that avoided the term in line with Turkey’s wishes.
In his first public remarks since Biden’s statement, Erdogan called on the US president to “reverse this wrong step immediately” and accused him of yielding to political pressure from “radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups”.
“This does not diminish the devastating effects it will have on our bilateral relations,” he said in a televised speech. Already “damaged” ties with the US “have now fallen well below even this level with the April 24 announcement, which added insult to injury”.
A protest near the US embassy in Ankara on Monday against Joe Biden’s statement on the Armenian genocide © REUTERS
Ankara and Washington are at odds over a host of issues, including Erdogan’s chequered record on human rights, Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles designed to shoot down Nato jets, and a US federal indictment of a Turkish state bank for allegedly helping Iran dodge sanctions.
Apprehension over Turkey’s foreign and economic policies have deterred investors in recent years, and Erdogan had said he hoped to turn the page with both the US and EU to improve commercial ties and protect the fragile economy.
Erdogan confirmed he and Biden would meet in June to discuss their differences but warned that failure to resolve them could prompt Turkey to take action of its own.
“We must put aside the issues that are poisoning our bilateral relations and look at steps to take together going forward. Otherwise, we will have no choice but to implement practices that are required of the new level to which our relations have receded,” he said.
He did not elaborate on what measures Turkey might take. The two countries share a defence pact that allows US military access to Turkish bases. Previously, Erdogan has withdrawn ambassadors or cancelled trade deals when other governments have recognised the genocide.
Erdogan hinted that retaliation could be aimed at the neighbouring republic of Armenia and that he would provide details in the coming days of joint steps Turkey and Azerbaijan might take. Turkey supplied weapons to Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia last year, helping it to recapture most of territory Baku had lost in the early 1990s.
The Turkish leader said Biden’s statement jeopardised the possibility of reconciliation with Armenia, with which Turkey cut diplomatic ties and sealed its borders three decades ago to show support for Azerbaijan.
Biden had pledged during his presidential campaign to recognise the genocide, part of a foreign policy he said that would prioritise human rights. US administration officials said the recognition was aimed at honouring the victims rather than to “assign blame”, and that Biden had informed Erdogan one day in advance of his statement in the leaders’ first phone call since the US election.
The US joins 30 or so countries and most historians in concluding that the massacres and deportations of Armenians beginning in 1915 amounted to genocide. Wartime campaigns by the Ottoman Empire to clear areas of Christian populations set the ground for the far less diverse Turkish republic established in 1923 after the empire collapsed.
Erdogan reiterated Turkish assertions that people were “relocated temporarily” to prevent collusion with foreign forces during the war and that “Armenian gangs” had killed Muslim civilians. A lack of an international court ruling precluded classifying the Armenian deaths as a genocide, he said, repeating his call “to leave the debate with historians”.
Today fewer than 60,000 ethnic Armenians remain in Turkey and are sporadically the targets of hate crimes, such as vandalism of churches. Erdogan warned that they might now bear the brunt of the dispute.
“These debates do not offer the Armenian community the slightest benefit, Just the opposite, they can become a new source of trouble,” he said.
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