In Turkey, a first-ever debate about Armenian mass killings

On eve of EU accession talks, a conference on the World War I massacres stirs controversy.

Opposition to a conference about mass killings of Armenians moved from Turkish courtrooms to the street over the weekend as scholars discussed the World War I massacres publicly for the first time on Turkish soil.

Turkish nationalists, who back the official line that there was no Armenian genocide, sought to make their views embarrassingly plain by hurling eggs and tomatoes outside Istanbul Bilgi University, a back-up venue used to skirt a court order Thursday that sought to shut down the conference at another location.

But participants cast the event as a breakthrough for expanding civil society - a key issue as Turkey prepares to open talks Oct. 3 over accession to the European Union. "The most important thing is that this [conference] is happening at all," said Cengiz Candar, a prominent columnist for Bugun newspaper, who was hit by an egg as he spoke outside the conference. "It will help to recoup some of Turkey's negative image and, more fundamentally, its commitment to the EU and democracy."

Potential EU membership has prompted a raft of democratic changes in recent years - including more freedom of expression. EU officials say they view the conference as a benchmark for tolerance, warning after the court ruling of a "provocation" that could hurt Turkey's case.

Armenians say that 1.5 million Armenians (historians often count 1 million) died in the first systematic genocide of the 20th century, at the hands of Ottoman Turkish forces.

In Turkey, the official version holds that some 300,000 Armenians died as they took up arms to push for independence and sided with invading Russian armies. The partisan conflict, Turkey has argued, took just as many Turkish Muslim lives.

Questioning that version can lead to prosecution of people considered traitors, the term used by nationalist lawyers who petitioned for the conference closure. Well-known novelist Orhan Pamuk faces trial in December for "denigrating" the Turkish state by mentioning an Armenian and Kurdish death toll during an interview.

Last May, the justice minister said the conference was a "stab in the Turkish nation's back," prompting it to be postponed, and tapping into hard-line elements.

"Laws change during a war, and when some of your citizens, on your soil, hit you in the back, then any nation on earth would punish them," says Volkan Ekiz, a protester whose group lobbed eggs and tomatoes this weekend as police looked on.

"It's not a scientific conference. It's the Turkish war of independence, and nobody can say that it's genocide," said Uckun Gerai, a central committee member of the nationalist Worker's Party of Turkey, outside the conference. "Turkey has a problem with the US and EU, but it's a political problem."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, keenly aware of the challenges ahead in EU talks, spoke forcefully in favor of the conference after the Thursday court decision. Mr. Erdogan said he wants a Turkey "where liberties are practiced to the full."

Halil Berktay, coordinator of the history department at Sabanci University, says the opposition was not surprising. "This is a country of more than 70 million, with a strong nationalist past; there are strong forces opposed to the European Union, to democracy and opening up," he says.

But, he adds, "the question of what happened in 1915-1916 is not a mystery, it's not like we know just 5 percent. We know 85 percent, so the question is not finding more evidence. The question is liberating scholarship from the nationalist taboos...."

Finding the balance between modernizing Turkey - the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance - and dealing with its staunchly statist history has not been easy. A further challenge is overcoming reluctance in the EU to accepting a Muslim state.

"Turkey has to confront its history, and the fact of the violence of 1915 and 1916, and lack of accountability, sanctioned more [state] violence," says Fatma Muge Gocek, a sociologist at the University of Michigan and a conference adviser.

"The discourse is not new; the fact that it is said in Turkey is what matters," says Ms. Gocek. "They are great developments."

Candar shares the optimism. "The judiciary is one of the most reactionary and backward institutions in Turkey, and the illegal [court] verdict reflects the inherent problems," he charges. "But the fact that we are discussing this is ample evidence to be optimistic."

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