Turkish protesters demonstrate outside the French Consulate in Istanbul,… (Tolga Bozoglu, European…)
Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — The object of the game is to see how hard a hand on the computer screen can slap a cartoon image of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It made its debut only hours after the French Senate passed legislation Monday that would criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide.
That bill has caused a furor in Turkey, further damaging a relationship chilled by Sarkozy's staunch opposition to Turkey's long-standing bid for membership in the European Union. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared it racist and a "massacre of free thought."
Turkish officials say they do not expect the issue to affect their relationship with other European countries. But their willingness to challenge France in a high-profile spat underscores Turkey's effort to establish itself as a regional leader. Some see the country as a model, although still far from perfect, of how Middle Eastern countries might be able to combine a moderate form of Islam with democracy and a vibrant economy.
The latest dispute with France began late last year when a deputy in Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement party introduced legislation calling for a one-year prison sentence and a $59,000 fine for anyone who espoused a belief that there was no genocide of Armenians under Ottoman rule during and immediately after World War I.
The number of dead is still in dispute, ranging from 300,000 to 1.5 million. Turkey acknowledges that atrocities were committed, but denies that there was a systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people.
After the bill was passed by the lower house of the French Parliament in December, Erdogan recalled Turkey's ambassador from Paris, banned the landing and docking of French military aircraft and warships in Turkey and suspended political and economic talks.
Turkish critics accused Sarkozy of using the bill to gain the votes of an estimated 500,000 French residents of Armenian descent at a time when he appears to be in trouble in his campaign for reelection in April.
"That's what it looks like to Turkey," said Hugh Pope, the Istanbul-based project director with the International Crisis Group think tank.
Sarkozy has 15 days from the bill's Senate approval to sign it into law. Turkish officials have launched a diplomatic push for the legislation to instead be referred to a court to rule on whether it is constitutional.
Turkey has its own stiff rules that touch on the dispute. Provisions of the Turkish penal code make it a crime to "insult Turkishness," and asserting that an Armenian genocide occurred is considered a violation.
But Pope said the atmosphere had loosened in recent years. "I remember when you couldn't even mention the subject," he said.
Cengiz Aktar, a leading Turkish scholar on the issue, said discussion of it was widely purged from accounts of the founding of modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but that it could no longer be contained.
"The reality is that there is no more Armenian presence in Anatolia, where they used to live for the past 3,000 years," he said.
Fatma Muge Gocek, a Turkish-born sociologist who teaches at the University of Michigan, said it was only a matter of time before the Turkish government came to grips with its past, good and bad.
"It's in the last 20 years that Turks have been trying to figure out what happened with their past," she said. "Acknowledgment would mean rewriting a great deal of their history."
Perhaps one indicator of progress occurred this month when about 20,000 people gathered in Istanbul to remember Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian newspaper editor killed five years ago by an ultranationalist. Dink angered nationalists by referring to the killings of Armenians as genocide.
Aktar said the large turnout was a reflection of changing times.
"Of course it's not a 100% free environment, but it's incomparably more free that it was 10 years ago," he said.
Kennedy is a special correspondent.