On 23rd November the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, officially offered a state ‘apology’ for the massacre of thousands of Alevi Kurds that took place in the eastern province of Tunceli (formerly Dersim) in 1937-1939. Without wading into the rights and wrongs of today’s politicians apologising for yesterday’s crimes, well-meaning observers – including many in the Western media – have responded approvingly, citing this as the latest evidence of a democratising, self-critical Turkish politics in action. If sincere, Erdoğan’s words would have been a brave and commendable, but there are reasons to be sceptical.

The Prime Minister knows that he has nothing to lose from such an apology, (feeble as it was in any case: “If an apology is required on behalf of the state and if such precedents exist, I am apologizing”). The current Justice and Development (AKP) government will hardly be held accountable for events that took place whilst under single-party, Republican People’s Party (CHP, current opposition), rule seventy-five years ago. Whilst apologising “on behalf of the state”, Erdoğan used the opportunity to lay down the gauntlet to the CHP, declaring that it was the real culprit behind the events: “The party that should confront this incident is not the AKP. It is the CHP which was behind this bloody disaster”. Evidently, the primary motivation behind opening up this issue at this time wasn’t to have an honest, sensible debate about a difficult issue, but rather to launch the government’s latest attack on the opposition. Instead of using the opportunity to reflect modestly on some of the darkest days in the history of the Turkish republic, Erdoğan has cynically exploited a sensitive issue to score cheap political points. The spectacle is nauseating.

For a number of complex reasons Tunceli – with its predominantly Alevi population – has traditionally been a strong supporter of the secular establishment, and thus of the CHP. In the parliamentary elections earlier this year the province again voted for a CHP representative, making it something of a novelty in the Anatolian hinterland (consider this map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/2011_Turkish_general_election_english.svg to see why). Could electoral calculations have anything to do with the Prime Minister’s opening up of the issue at this time, and in such a combative way? Political scientist Doğu Ergil reflected: “I wonder if Erdoğan would have done the same thing if the perpetrators had been close to his political views”, before going on to suggest that the debate “shouldn’t be limited to the Dersim killings. Turkey should also apologize for the 1915 Armenian killings and the Sept. 6-7, 1955, events, which resulted in the mass exodus of minorities from the country”. Don’t hold your breath.

Apparently it isn’t possible to stimulate an honest conversation about the darker episodes of the country’s history without seeking political reward; it isn’t possible to reform the judiciary without leaving a legacy of overbearing party political control; it isn’t possible to de-fang the military without simultaneously loading the police with your own supporters. Yet again the convenient narrative of Turkey’s steady democratisation is exposed as, at best, flawed.

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