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Turkey celebrates a socially distant but relevant Victory Day

Amid tensions with Greece and measures against the COVID-19 outbreak, Turkey marked Victory Day on Sunday, the anniversary of a battle for independence from invading Greek forces.

Victory Day celebrations have been a spectacle for showcasing Turkey’s passion for independence, but this year the coronavirus pandemic has overshadowed the remembrance of a turning point in Turkish history. In nationwide ceremonies held under strict measures, leaders and the public marked the 98th anniversary of the war against invading Greek forces on Sunday. Ceremonies came at a time when tensions between Turkey and Greece heightened over the latter’s threats against Turkey related rights to resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

The celebrations for Victory Day, formally known as Victory and Turkish Armed Forces Day, started at Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in the capital Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other dignitaries paid their respects to the founder of the Republic of Turkey and commander of the war of independence nearly a century ago. The visit, a routine for every Victory Day, was different this time as visitors at Anıtkabir strived to keep social distancing, and each wore a protective mask.

As part of the tradition, Erdoğan signed a guestbook at the mausoleum dedicated to Atatürk. “We remember Your Highness and venerable martyrs in the 98th anniversary of Great Victory, a harbinger of our independence. We are working to strengthen the Republic of Turkey you entrusted to us and bring it above the level of modern civilizations,” Erdoğan wrote. “We are determined to welcome 2023, the centenary of the Republic, as an economically, militarily, politically stronger, more independent, more prosperous country,” Erdoğan also wrote. The president gave examples of “critical accomplishments from Syria to Libya, from the Black Sea to Eastern Mediterranean” as the “clearest indication of our will to protect our country’s rights and interests.” He was referring to Turkey’s increased role in the international community and efforts to cut dependence abroad for energy needs.

“Turkey will not yield to the language of threat, intimidation and blackmail particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean and will continue defending its rights stemming from international law and bilateral agreements,” Erdoğan concluded. The Eastern Mediterranean has been a flashpoint in relations between Turkey and Greece, which sought to save bilateral ties from historic hostilities in recent years. Turkey’s attempt to explore energy resources in the Mediterranean, off Cyprus, an island divided between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, has sparked a row. Turkey protested Greece’s attempt to deny its rights while Greece sought to rally the European Union against Ankara. In a written statement on Saturday for Victory Day, Erdoğan criticized Greece and its allies again. “With the victory on Aug. 30 (1922), it has been declared to the whole world once again that these lands are our eternal homeland. It is no coincidence that those who tried to exclude our country from the Eastern Mediterranean and those who attempted to invade our country a century ago are the same invaders,” Erdoğan has said.

Erdoğan later welcomed guests for Victory Day greetings. A larger ceremony was canceled due to the pandemic while Erdoğan and guests had to abstain from handshakes. The Presidential Complex was set to host two concerts by a symphony orchestra and by Mehteran, an Ottoman-style military band, without an audience. Some 300 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were also set to put on aerial stunts to honor the day in Ankara. A military parade, a staple of Victory Day events, was also scaled back due to the outbreak. Military units carrying Turkish flags marched – adhering to social distancing rules – from the Parliament to the old Parliament building where Atatürk and the first lawmakers of the Republic once convened. Elsewhere, ceremonies were held to mark the day in 81 provinces. The last week of August is celebrated as Victory Week in Turkey to honor two key victories by Turkish forces, the Battle of Manzikert on Aug. 26, 1071, when Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army, opening the way for Turkish rule in Anatolia and the start of the Great Offensive on Aug. 26, 1922, resulting in the Greek defeat at the hands of the Turks.

Victory Day is a milestone in the establishment of the republic following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The World War I defeat of the empire led to occupation by Allied forces, but in 1919, Mustafa Kemal, then an Ottoman pasha, traveled to Anatolia to rally a public tired of wars. His devoted work where he traveled around the country to recruit a ragtag army ultimately paid off though. With the help of several powerful commanders joining his cause, Mustafa Kemal launched an offensive against invading Greek forces. From Aug. 26 to Aug. 30, 1922, Turkish forces fought the Battle of Dumlupınar in western Kütahya province and decisively defeated Greek forces. Following the defeat, disorganized Greek forces fled back to the western province of Izmir, while destroying towns and villages along the 300-kilometer (186-mile) route. The Turkish army liberated Izmir on Sept. 9, effectively putting an end to the Greek invasion of Anatolia. Two months later, Turkey signed an armistice with Italy, France and Britain which was followed by the Treaty of Lausanne one year later, ending hostilities between the country and the Allied forces of World War I. Mustafa Kemal went on to declare a new republic and years later, was given the last name Atatürk or father of Turks.

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