More than 60 leaders and representatives from around the world converged on the Armenian capital on Friday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of a period during which more than 1 million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President François Hollande both attended the ceremony, while the White House dispatched Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
The anniversary of the 1915 killings, in what was then the eastern edge of the Ottoman Empire, has coincided with a surge in international awareness. In the past month, global icons ranging from Pope Francis to Kim Kardashian (who has Armenian ancestry) have ruffled Turkish feathers by shedding light on the killings and using the term “genocide,” which the Turkish government rejects. And as world envoys gather in Yerevan, similar ceremonies will be held in cities around the world.
On April 24, 1915, the Ottomans rounded up Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul in the beginning of what historians widely consider a genocidal act of bloodshed. In an article years later about a violent Armenian campaign for vengeance, TIME described the killings like this:
But even today, the Turkish government still rejects the “genocide” label and says the killing of Armenians was a casualty of the World War. And to the dismay of Armenians, Turkey is hosting a separate centennial ceremony on Friday: a commemoration of the World War I Gallipoli military campaign, the unsuccessful British and French-led invasion of Turkey that also began in 1915.
The naval operation off the coast began on March 18, a day that is traditionally associated in Turkey with the onset of the campaign. Then, following the failure of the naval bombardment, the allies landed troops on Ottoman beaches on April 25, beginning the ill-fated land offensive. Today that date is observed in Australia and New Zealand as Anzac day, a national remembrance day.
Though the centenary events were bound to be close together, some observers say the timing of the Gallipoli memorial appears to be a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the Armenian anniversary, as it forces the world’s dignitaries to choose one or the other. “It certainly looks like an intentional move by Turkey,” said Thomas de Waal, a historian with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Great Catastrophe, about the genocide and its aftermath.
Fatih Öke, a spokesperson at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, denied that charge, noting that Turkey has held a Gallipoli commemoration on April 24 since 2003. This year, because of the centennial anniversary, he said, the government invited foreign leaders. “Sorry, we already have this date,” he said.
Still, no matter the motivation, appearances count. “This may rebound against the Turkish government,” said de Waal. “Whereas if they for example had had it on the 25th, then a lot of officials could have gone to Yerevan one day and to Turkey on the next, and that would have been quite elegant.”
A dozen heads of state and five prime ministers were slated to attend the Gallipoli centennial celebration, including Australian Premier Tony Abbott. But with the exception of the British royalty and Irish President Michael Higgins, none are from Western Europe. Hollande’s presence at the Armenian memorial, rather than the Turkish memorial, is particularly conspicuous given France’s central role in the Gallipoli campaign. And though U.S. ambassador to Turkey John Bass was set to attend the Gallipoli memorial, the U.S. is not sending a separate representative from Washington.
Under rising pressure from the international community, the government in Turkey has recently appeared to ease its approach. On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed “deep condolences” to descendants of the Armenians who suffered during that time.
But activists in the U.S. are skeptical that the Premier’s statements represent a long term change in attitude.
“Davutoglu was just trying to deter or derail recognition efforts. There’s no expression of regret, there’s no acceptance of responsibility,” said Aram Hamparian, the executive committee of the Armenian National Committee of America. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they organized this Gallipoli thing to detract attention from the Armenian genocide centennial.”
To be sure, Turkey continues to pressure foreign countries on the use of the term “genocide.” President Recep Erdogan warned the Pope not to repeat the “mistake” of using the word, and the White House remains reluctant to risk relations with a key ally in a tumultuous region. On Tuesday, White House officials informed Armenian American leaders that President Barack Obama would not use the term in remarks on Friday, despite a 2008 campaign pledge and vocal past support from people within his administration.
“While it is essential to ensure that Turkey continues to ‘treat the Americans all right,’ a stable, fruitful, 21st century relationship cannot be built on a lie,” Samantha Power, now the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in TIME in 2007.
Read Power advocate for recognizing the Armenian Genocide in October, 2007: Honesty Is the Best Policy