ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister — and presidential hopeful — Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked an outcry Wednesday after using what critics said was a racist slur against Armenians in a television interview.
During a live interview on the private NTV channel late Tuesday, Erdogan complained that the opposition was carrying out a smear campaign against him by claiming that he was from another ethnic origin.
“They called me a Georgian. Pardon me for saying this, but they said even uglier things: They called me an Armenian!” Erdogan said.
“As far as I have learned from my father and grandfather, I am a Turk,” he added.
His comment that it was ugly to be called an Armenian drew anger on social media, further inflaming tensions days ahead of Sunday’s presidential election where Erdogan is hot favorite to become head of state.
“Excuse me, but please go and become the president of another country,” wrote prominent Turkish-Armenian columnist Hayko Bagdat in an angry response to Erdogan.
Melda Onur, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), asked: “Is there any ethnic group who could escape Erdogan’s hate speech?”
Critics accused Erdogan of playing the sectarian and the ethnic card in the run-up to the presidential elections.
“Is it ugly to be an Armenian or is it a shame? Please explain now!” demanded Nevsin Mengu, an anchorwoman at the private CNN-Turk television.
Turkey’s Armenian minority — the remnants of a much greater community that lived during the Ottoman Empire — numbers around 70,000 people, most of them living in Istanbul.
They often complain of being considered second-class citizens in a country where “Armenian” is often considered a curse.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in a 1915-1916 genocide by Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire. Turkey says 500,000 died of fighting and starvation during World War I and categorically rejects the term genocide.
Erdogan in April expressed his condolences over the World War I massacres of Armenians, which he called “our shared pain”, but his overture was brushed aside by Yerevan.
Erdogan’s supporters are largely ethnic Turkish Sunni Muslims, who are the overwhelming majority community in Turkey.
During an election rally last weekend, the 61-year-old premier urged the CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to make clear he belongs to the country’s minority Alevi community, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
“Kilicdaroglu, you can be an Alevi. I respect you. Don’t be afraid to say it. I am Sunni and can say it without fear. There is no need to deceive people,” he said.