The statement by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the “Armenian Question” goes further than any other Turkish leader before him.
Never before has a Turkish leader offered condolences to the descendants of Ottoman Armenians. Erdogan said that he and his government “wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”
But of course few people are merely reading the words themselves-which, in the context of Turkish history, read very well. They only look at the name of the speaker and the date of April 23, 2014: one day before Armenian Remembrance Day and one year before the centenary of the Armenian Genocide is marked.
So is Erdogan's statement a sign of a change in Turkey or a calculating political maneuver?
It is both. Erdogan's AKP government has done more for the Armenians than any Turkish government over the last 50 years. It has lifted the taboo on free discussion of the question of 1915, allowed ordinary Turks to use the word “genocide” and seen Armenian churches re-open in Turkey.
Yet, this is only the beginning of an acknowledgement of the huge tragedy that befell the entire Ottoman Armenian population-while the tone of the prime minister's remarks suggests that he wants this to be the end of the issue. And of course the Armenian-Turkish border remains closed.
The sad truth is that the annual round of statements on the Armenian tragedy every April 24 has now been completely devalued. Because of its use of the phrase “shared pain” and lack of the word “genocide,” the Armenian National Committee of America duly called Erdogan's statement a “cold and cynical ploy.”
The ANCA missed the opportunity to give a more nuanced statement, just as they did in 2009 when they called a very dignified April 24 declaration by President Obama “yet another disgraceful capitulation to Turkey’s threats” because Obama did not use the word “genocide.”
The paradoxical effect is that Armenian organizations which say they speak for the Armenian dead of 1915 end up making April 24 a day of anger and politics, rather than mourning.
It would surely be better all round if everyone just abandoned their April 24 statements and their tortured language and concentrated on the real issues: how to honor the Armenian dead, what to do about Armenian architectural heritage in Turkey, re-writing Turkey's history books and-most importantly-normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations and opening the closed border.
As the 2015 centenary approaches, it is more likely that we will see more rhetoric and less action. But, if anyone was listening, the statement by the Turkish prime minister is an opportunity to encourage him and his government to take real steps to honor Armenians, living and dead.
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This commentary was written for Carnegie Moscow Center.