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Erdogan avoids escalating genocide dispute with Biden

By Reuters | Apr 30th 2021 | 3 min read
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at a past event. [AFP]

Despite its fury with the United States for calling the Ottoman massacre of Armenians a genocide, Turkey is for now avoiding a showdown which could hurt its fragile economy and scupper hopes of better ties with US-allied Arab states.

President Tayyip Erdogan angrily condemned Joe Biden’s characterisation of the killings a century ago, saying the US president should “look in the mirror” and examine the fate of Native Americans wiped out by settlers who founded his country.

But the usually combative Turkish leader, who has often used foreign disputes to rally domestic support, is more focused on reviving a battered economy which is key to his long-term re-election prospects.

In a largely restrained response, he has taken no concrete retaliatory steps, and addressed the issue just once since Biden’s historic declaration on Saturday.

In the same televised speech in which he lashed out at Biden’s “baseless, unjust and untrue remarks”, Erdogan stressed that the two leaders could forge a new start when they meet in June for the first time since Biden took office.

That softer tone reflects the delicate path Erdogan is treading between fury over the genocide designation and fear of the damage which could be done by a deeper rift with Washington.

It is also consistent with Turkey’s broader goal since late last year of mending frayed ties with Western and Arab states, after years of military interventions and assertive foreign policy which increased Ankara’s hard power but left it largely isolated in the east Mediterranean and Middle East.

Relations with Washington were already strained by Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defences and US support for Syrian Kurdish fighters Ankara says are inextricably linked to militants waging a decades-old insurgency in Turkey.

In contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump, who spoke to Erdogan regularly and was largely sympathetic to the Turkish president, Biden has kept his distance and his administration has criticised Ankara’s human rights record.

Three months after taking office, Biden had not spoken to Erdogan until last Friday, when he called the Turkish leader to give him advance notice of his genocide declaration.

“Certainly it was not something pleasant,” a senior Turkish official with knowledge of the call told Reuters. “Doing this in his first year was a stance that put relations in jeopardy”.

At the same time, the official said the phone call “laid the foundations” for the two NATO partners to cooperate in future. “Developments will show how relations will evolve, but it still appears that it can be overcome.”

Two other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Turkey would seek to avoid escalating the dispute with Washington - at least for now.

Erdogan’s spokesman and national security adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, told Reuters the day after Biden’s announcement that Turkey would respond in various ways in the coming months.

After 18 years in power, support for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has eroded as Turkey’s once vibrant economic growth has stalled and it grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Facing elections in 2023, the centenary of the modern Turkish state, Erdogan’s chances of heading into a third decade in office rest on his ability to revive the country’s fortunes.

Opposition parties say the government mismanaged Covid-19 and erred in selling off $128 billion in foreign currency to stem losses in the lira.

Biden’s statement showed Erdogan was too weak to give the US president the response he deserved, said Meral Aksener, head of the centrist nationalist Iyi Party, mocking what she said was Erdogan’s uncharacteristic deference.

“The world leader who takes pride in shunning those who upset him has become a very polite, very cute, little darling Mr Erdogan,” she said in a speech to party members on Wednesday.

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