VAN, Turkey — Beyond Turkey’s borders, the Armenian diaspora have been fighting for years to have the forced deportations and massacres of Armenians in the early 21st century officially recognized as genocide — a response to Ankara’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the crimes of its predecessors.
The approval in March by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee of a resolution calling on President Barack Obama to “characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide” was a small victory for the lobby. It was also a warm up for a full House vote that would formalize the official U.S. recognition of the genocide.
But many worry that the Armenian lobby’s efforts are doing great damage to the Obama administration's attempts to rescue a fragile Turkey-Armenia reconciliation — dealt yet another blow this week when Armenia suspended ratification of the historic peace accords with Turkey.
The battle to have these atrocities recognized as genocide is the raison d’etre for the Armenian diaspora, some of whose grandparents were marched across Turkish soil to their deaths.
“All Armenians worldwide are descendants of the survivors of the Armenian genocide,” said Harut Sassounian, an Armenian-American writer, public activist and publisher of The California Courier, an English-language Armenian weekly newspaper. “The government of Armenia, however, due to external pressures, has to take a more cautious position on relations with Turkey.”
Jeroen Moes, co-founder of the website Mediated Memories, a virtual museum dedicated to the Armenian genocide, explains that collective memories of genocide are transmitted from generation to generation and help to shape the attitudes, opinions and behaviors of individuals. Somewhat counterintuitively, Moes’ research shows that collective memories of atrocities such as these can become more important to later generations than to those who experienced them.
“First-hand experience, however gruesome, is usually more nuanced and less black-and-white than the story being retold from generation to generation and from medium to medium,” he said.
In an article in Foreign Policy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, ranks the Armenian-American Lobby as one of the most effective — right up there with the Cubans and Israelis. From 1992 to 2007, Armenia received almost $2 billion worth of assistance from the United States, while Azerbaijan came away with about a billion less.
And despite their numbers — there are fewer than 2 million Armenian-Americans living in the United States, a country with a population of nearly 300 million — Armenian political action committees contributed nearly $200,000 to various races across the U.S. in the 2008 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission documents.
Still, the community’s rallying cry of support for official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide has always been frustrated.
Turkey plays a solid defense, always managing to dissuade the U.S. from going through with the resolution by a series of diplomatic temper tantrums and blunt reminders that the U.S. has few friends like Turkey in the Muslim world.
More recently, the Turkish Culture Ministry gave approval for a religious service to be held once a year in the recently restored Armenian Holy Cross Church on the island of Akhtamar in Lake Van. Protest flared in 2007 when the church — possibly the most precious symbol of the Armenian presence in Turkey — was reopened as a museum and religious services banned. The decision came amid mutual recriminations between Turkey and Armenia over the lack of progress on the historic accords signed last October to restore diplomatic relations and put in motion a process to examine the past.
Barack Obama's election raised hope that the word genocide might finally make it past the congressional floor. As a senator in 2008, Obama had been quoted as saying that "the Armenian genocide is not an allegation ... but rather a widely documented fact."
The president seems to have chosen pragmatism over personal beliefs, and in all likelihood this diplomatic ritual will play out like it always has.
The U.S. administration will persuade legislators to avoid a vote in the full House, for fear of further weakening their relationship with Ankara and worsening the fading prospects for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993, during Armenia’s war with Turkey’s ethnic cousins in Azerbaijan. Protocols signed last year — laying out a plan to re-establish diplomatic relations and an opening of the border — brought a brief warming in relations. Then Armenia’s highest court declared that the protocols were in line with Armenia’s constitutionally mandated policy that foreign affairs conform to the Armenian view of the genocide. Turkey responded with fury and the protocols were put on ice. Although both sides say they aren’t ready to give up just yet, experts fear that the U.S. House resolution may have dealt the death blow to an already faltering peace process.
In an incendiary interview with BBC's Turkish-language service last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went as far as threatening to expel thousands of Armenians living illegally in Turkey as a result of the recent Armenian genocide resolutions passed in Sweden and the United States. "There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country,” Erdogan told the BBC. “Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.”
While it doesn’t look like Turkey is planning to lend action to its threats any time soon, the disturbing connotations of the threat were not missed.
“For my people, such unacceptable comments evoke memories of the genocide,” responded Armenian President Serge Sarkisian in an interview with Der Spiegel. “Unfortunately, these comments don't surprise me, coming from the mouth of a Turkish politician.”
The opening of the border matters immensely to Armenians, whose GDP is 50 times less than Turkey's. Loans to Armenia from the U.S. since 1993 exceed $1.1 billion, about the same amount as the annual financial loss caused by blockades on the Turkish and Azeri borders, according to World Bank estimates. Eighty-five percent of ground access to the outside world is cut off.
“The Turks, Armenians and the United States all dilute the meaning of the word genocide by playing politics with it,” wrote Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. “But the U.S. alone has the power to help broker an agreement that would make a meaningful difference in Armenians' lives, by ending their economic isolation.”
Much has been said of the need to pump life back into the Turkish and Armenian reconciliation process, but how to best put to rest the ghosts of the past is an issue that still rankles both sides.
“Such atrocities become very potent and politically crucial symbols,” Moes said. “All too often, though, they are used as political ammunition rather than remembered for the loss of human lives.”
Amid talk of looking for a path for both countries to move forward, all sides seem caught up in a political and emotional tug-of-war between recognizing past horrors and rectifying present inequalities.
“What we need is to sit down, look at the evidence together and set out the facts with a view to learn common lessons and make this memory the common legacy of two people,” said Guenael Mettraux, the author of “The Law of Command Responsibility” and representative of defendants before international criminal tribunals. “Easily said, I realize.”