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 have also said a lot of things about me,” he said, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “One of them came and said I was a Georgian. Then another came up and, I beg your pardon, called me uglier things, saying I was Armenian.”
“What I have learned from my grandfather, my father and all of them is that I am Turkish. That’s it,” added the controversial Turkish premier.
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.
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.
Turkey’s outgoing President Abdullah Gul similarly took offense in 2009 when an opposition lawmaker, Canan Aritman, claimed that he does not denounce Turkish intellectuals apologizing for the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire because his mother was an ethnic Armenian. Gul strongly denied having Armenian origin and sued Aritman for defamation of character. A Turkish court ruled out against the oppositionist.