ISTANBUL, Turkey — Raising the stakes in Turkey's rejection of the genocide label by U.S. and Swedish lawmakers for the mass deaths of Armenians a century ago, Turkey says it might send home up to 100,000 Armenians currently living in Turkey without citizenship.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, angry over the decision earlier this month by a U.S. congressional committee and by the Swedish parliament to call the 1915 deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians a "genocide," has said the issue could disrupt a nascent Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process started last year.
Erdogan is now unlikely to attend an energy summit hosted by President Barack Obama in April, the Hurriyet newspaper reported. Erdogan already pulled out of a top-level meeting in Sweden, and Turkey withdrew ambassadors from both Washington and Stockholm after the two votes.
The issue of deaths during the expulsion of Christian Armenians by forces of the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I are sensitive in Turkey, which argues that killing took place on both sides.
More broadly, NATO member and European Union candidate Turkey doesn't want to be lumped with Nazi Germany, Cambodia, or Rwanda as perpetrators of genocide in the 20th century.
"There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country," Erdogan told the BBC Turkish service in London on Tuesday, according to Reuters. "Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don't have to keep them in my country."
Most of those Armenians live in Istanbul, where they've lived since a 1988 earthquake in their own country and from which they send remittances home.
They've been caught up in a political and emotional tug-of-war over well-documented history that still rankles both sides. The U.S. and Swedish votes were a result of steady lobbying for years by the powerful Armenian disapora, which has pushed for similar genocide resolutions in other countries.
The latest votes knocked the Turkish government "off balance, so there is a certain anger and concern that they need to deter upcoming votes in (other) parliaments by making a strong stand against this," said Cengiz Candar, a columnist for Radikal newspaper and Hurriyet Online in Istanbul.
"It seems a very careless statement," Candar said. He added that Erdogan's comments may appeal to some nationalists in Turkey but have also prompted a "very negative response" by many who normally support the policies of the Islamist-rooted government.
"I don't think that he will be implementing that — sending Armenians working here back to Armenia," Candar said. "But it is a signal sent to Armenia to deter them from supporting (such) genocide resolutions out loud."
Erdogan was explicit on that point in the interview. "Armenia has an important decision to make," he said. "It should free itself from its attachments to the diaspora. Any country which cares for Armenia, namely the U.S., France and Russia, should primarily help Armenia to free itself from the influence of the diaspora."