BERLIN Germany's foreign minister and the government's top spokesman on Friday said a June parliamentary vote declaring the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a genocide was not legally binding, comments that could help mend ties with Turkey.
"The German parliament naturally has the right and the freedom to pass any resolution it likes, but the Bundestag itself has said that not every resolution is legally binding," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.
Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, repeated that message over and over again during a regular government news conference several hours later, while insisting that Merkel's government was not kow-towing to demands by Turkey.
Turkey accepts many Christian Armenians were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces in World War One, but contests assertions that up to 1.5 million died, and denies the killings were orchestrated and constituted a genocide. It responded to the June vote by blocking German lawmakers from visiting 250 German troops at Incirlik Air Base.
Some German lawmakers, including members of the ruling right-centre coalition, have said they would press withdrawal of German troops from the base unless they are allowed to visit, but Turkey insists Berlin must first distance itself from the Armenia resolution before it will change its mind.
Seibert bristled at an article in Spiegel Online saying that the government was distancing itself from the resolution before Merkel's meeting next week with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and her counterparts from Italy and France.
"There can be no talk of the German government distancing itself from the Armenia resolution," he said. He said the government was a separate constitutional entity from parliament and could not interfere in its resolutions.
Foreign ministry spokesman Matthias Schaefer said it was "self-evident" that German lawmakers must be allowed to visit troops at the base near the Syrian border.
Schaefer said Turkey and Germany remained in talks about the issue, but he expected a visit planned in October to occur.
Ilnur Cevik, a media adviser to Erdogan, told German broadcaster ARD that Friday's statements explaining the non-binding nature of the resolution would not suffice to free up visits by members of Germany's parliament.
The issue also revealed divisions between Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the junior partner in her right-centre coalition government.
Thomas Oppermann, head of the Social Democrats (SPD) in parliament, said the resolution was not legally, but politically binding. "We expect that all members of the German government feel bound by what the German parliament has decided," he said.
(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Andrea Shalal Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)