On Thursday, a few hours before the leaders of European Union member-states were to discuss the bloc’s relations with Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended a military parade in Baku, celebrating Azerbaijan’s triumph over Armenian forces (with Turkish assistance).
The European leaders may be divided over whether they should impose sanctions against Turkey for its belligerence against some of its members, but Erdogan does not display similar sensitivities: In Thursday’s celebrations, he hailed the name of Enver Pasha, the Ottoman war minister who played a significant role in the Armenian genocide, as well as his brother, who commanded the Islamic Army of the Caucasus, which occupied Baku in 1918.
The fact that Thursday was the United Nations International Human Rights Day would not have seemed ironic to Erdogan – he usually presents aggression as defense of the rights of Turks, Azeris, or whichever other nation he seeks to present as the victim of aggression and needing his protection.
For the Greeks, the tolerance for Turkey shown by other countries – notably Germany – is inconceivable. The same probably applies to other nations that carry the scars of Turkish invasions and occupation in their collective memory, from Ottoman or more recent times. Memories and pain are the context for every threat and provocation that we see. Erdogan, meanwhile, combines aggression and complaint to make his followers believe both that they are threatened and that they have the power to conquer their enemies.
While other countries seek to put the past behind them, Erdogan seems to see the way forward through reviving the turmoil and pain of the past. He distorts history to cultivate the fantasies that serve him. We Greeks see this. That is why we cannot understand why others do not share our belief that limits should be placed on Turkey’s behavior.
No one is so naïve as to believe that other countries do not seek to protect their narrow national interests, nor that others see only how complicated and “sensitive” EU-Turkey relations are. Besides these factors, though, we can see a lack of imagination: For some it is impossible, in 2020, to understand that the president of a modern country, in his business suit, can act like a warlord from the past.
One person who did realize this is James Jeffrey, Donald Trump’s outgoing Syria envoy. “Erdogan will not back down until you show him teeth,” he said in an interview with Al-Monitor last week.