This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Medz Yeghern, otherwise known as the Armenian Genocide, during which at least 1 million ethnic Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks. Today, Turkey refuses to accept that the mass extermination of the Armenians was a genocide. Many of its allies, meanwhile, have been forced to adopt an awkward stance of agreement due to strategic importance of Turkey for Middle Eastern security.
The Armenian Genocide coincided with a period of final decay for the Ottoman Empire. Having existed in some form or another since the early 14th century, the Empire was in its last decade by 1915, embroiled in a bloody battle against the Entente powers having sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War One.
How was such a disaster allowed to happen? In 1908, a political reform movement dubbed the ‘Young Turks’ effectively ended the absolute monarchy of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, whose weak and corrupt reign was blamed for the decline of Ottoman supremacy. A constitutional monarchy was formed, whilst the Young Turks endured a factional split between a nationalist (the Committee of Union and Progress) and more liberal (Freedom and Accord Party) party. By 1913, the nationalists had won out and the ‘Three Pashas’ (Talaat, Enver and Djemal) became the de facto rulers of the Ottoman Empire.
The Three Pashas were characterised by a pan-Turkist philosophy that advocated the removal of non-Muslims from the Ottoman territories. Many of these dhimmi were forcibly removed from the Empire, the Armenians suffering the worst fate.
Ultimately, WWI sealed the destiny of the Ottoman Empire, its disastrous results leading to the Turkish War of Independence, the assassination of the Three Pashas and the formation of a new Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
It can be seen that a decadent and rudderless dynasty,such as the Ottoman Empire was by the early 20th century,fomented the rise of a radical and rebellious political opposition whose defiance of the old ways took Turkey down a path of violence and brutality that only ended with Ataturk’s new state.
Today, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, is beginning to resemble a corrupt and defiant Ottoman Sultan. Having steered his country through an unprecedented period of economic growth, Erdogan has in recent years sought to forge a personal dictatorship characterised by judicial interference, press censorship, fraud and a disregard for the rule of law. Knowing Turkey’s importance to the west as a military staging post and partner against enemies in the Middle East, Erdogan has been able to get away with the sort of flagrant abuses of liberal democracy that others would be censured for.
Protests against Erdogan’s corrupt leadership have become increasingly frequent, with more than 3.5 million people taking to the streets in May 2013 to draw attention to his authoritarian nature. The fear is that, like with the Ottomans, a radical protest movement will overthrow Erdogan with the same kind of disrespect for democracy that he shows. With the Islamic State (IS) keen to recruit disaffected Sunnis, Turkey may soon prove a lucrative recruiting ground, potentially setting off a chain of events mirroring the rise of the Three Pashas prior to WWI.
To ensure events do not play out this way, the West needs to take a firmer stance against Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism, whilst continuing to honour existing security and economic commitments to what is a key regional ally.
A repeat of the horrors of the Armenian Genocide may seem impossible, yet the presence of a bloodthirsty extremist group on Turkey’s borders, coupled with an increasingly disaffected populace, should at least make us pause to remember the events of 100 years ago and how they came about.