ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Wednesday faced accusations of racism days before he stands in presidential election after saying in a television interview that it was ugly to be called an Armenian.
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.
Even a senior lawmaker from the ultra right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – usually not a natural friend of Turkey’s Armenians – came to their defense.
“We have news for Erdogan from the 21st century: Being an Armenian is not a crime, a fault, an ugly, an embarrassing or a sinful thing ... But his words amount to hate crime according to our laws,” Tugrul Turkes said in a written statement.
Critics accused Erdogan of playing the sectarian and the ethnic card in the runup to the presidential elections.
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.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in a 1915-1917 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.