In April 2021, President Biden became the first U.S. President to refer to the systematic killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as a genocide, after years of Armenian Americans, Armenians around the world, and affiliated groups calling for this specific recognition. It marked a significant success for the Armenian people and all those who have felt the effects of genocide, but there are many other countries that do not officially recognize what happened as a genocide.
To this day, Turkey’s government continues to deny that an Armenian genocide ever took place, instead describing the situation “as a tragedy in which both sides suffered casualties.” Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code has been used to prosecute those in Turkey who disagree with the official narrative on the events of 1915, resulting in arrests. This year, when President Biden again recognized the genocide on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, Anadolu Agency, a news company run by the Turkish state, reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “We cannot forgive this attempt aiming to challenge Turkiye in the absence of such (historical) knowledge.” It is clear that the Turkish government’s stance on the genocide remains firm.
The world has long been aware of the erosion of democracy in Turkey. This year, Freedom House gave the country a score of 32/100 and the label “Not Free” in their 2022 Freedom in the World Report. The report did not specifically highlight, however, the continued denial of the Armenian Genocide. Recognition of Armenian Genocide denial as a historic and ongoing symptom of democratic erosion in Turkey is important, as it emphasizes both the Turkish government’s censorship of freedom of speech, which is an important element of democracy, and an ongoing concept that enforces the notion of “the people,” a key component of populist rhetoric.
The Armenian Genocide began on April 24th, 1915. Around 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed, starved, or forced to march until death. But though a majority of scholars have confirmed that these events took place, there is still significant controversy over acknowledgement of the tragedy, primarily originating from Turkey.
As was previously mentioned, the control of the narrative surrounding the Armenian Genocide and the limiting of freedom of speech contributes to democratic erosion in Turkey. According to Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, “freedom of expression” is one of the eight key criteria that determines whether a government can be defined as a democracy . The use of Article 301 to prevent discussion and recognition of the Armenian Genocide is a clear example of how Turkey’s policies regarding the genocide stray from democratic norms, among many other limits on freedom of speech identified in the Freedom House Report.
President Erdoğan has also been identified as a populist leader. According to Jan-Werner Müller’s book What is Populism?, populists “treat their political opponents as ‘enemies of the people’”  while their supporters or “the people” are “always defined as righteous and morally pure” . This explanation makes it evident why recognition of the genocide is a threat to President Erdoğan in particular – it could pose a threat to the notion of him being representative of what is “morally pure.” It also means that, even if Erdoğan was no longer President, Armenian genocide denial could still provide a platform for future populist leaders. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz also identify, in their article “How Democracies Fall Apart,” that populism is one of the most pressing threats to democracy, writing that “populist-fueled authoritarianization will soon become the most common pathway to autocracy” .
It is important to recognize that Armenian genocide denial isn’t just limited to government officials or outlets. As a more recent example, Marvel released a new show in 2022 called Moon Knight. This show has been “review bombed” by some because it references the Armenian Genocide as a major tragedy in human history – people have been giving it one-star reviews in order to tank its rating, with one reviewer claiming “‘There is no Armenian Genocide, you historical ignorants.’” While this may seem like a very specific example, it is emblematic of the ways in which this issue extends into many facets of everyday life. It also shows that the Turkish population believes in the government’s narrative and wants to defend it themselves.
The Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian Genocide should not be overlooked as an element of the state’s democratic erosion. If Turkey is ever able to revitalize elements of democracy in the country, it must also officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. Without doing this, not only will Turkey be unable to claim democratic legitimacy, but it will also continually be undermining its own ability to function as a true democracy. Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 3.  Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 8.  Ibid, 8.  Kendall-Taylor, Andrea and Erica Frantz. 2016. “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs. December 5.