Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 46

A senior U.S. diplomat has caused a stir in America’s relations with Turkey and Armenia by publicly declaring that the 1915-1918 killings of some 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The statements by Washington’s ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, contradicted a long-running U.S. policy that is widely perceived to be pro-Turkish in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora.

Many Armenians now wonder if Evans signaled a change in that policy. Some of them expect the administration of President George W. Bush to become more assertive in its efforts to get Turkey to drop its preconditions for normalizing relations with Armenia.

Evans repeatedly referred to the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians as “genocide” at a series of meetings late last month with members of the influential Armenian community in the United States. “I think it is unbecoming of us as Americans to play word games here. I believe in calling things by their name,” he stated at one of those meetings.

The Armenian-Americans must have been stunned with what they heard. They have one of the most powerful ethnic lobbies on Capitol Hill and have spent decades campaigning for official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide. Former President Ronald Reagan was the only U.S. government official to have described the mass killings as genocide before.

All of Reagan’s successors avoided using the politically sensitive word, anxious not to upset Turkey, which vehemently denies that the killings of Armenians were part of a premeditated policy pursued by the last Ottoman rulers. Bill Clinton, for example, went as far as to effectively block the almost-certain passage of a Congressional resolution affirming the genocide in October 2000.

Washington was quick to disown Evans’s remarks. The ambassador himself issued a statement on February 28 saying that they were an “inappropriate” expression of his personal opinion. “What Ambassador Evans decided to do really and truthfully was his own initiative that absolutely contradicts the policy of the U.S. government as articulated by our president,” a senior Bush administration official told RFE/RL two days later. “He did not clear his remarks with the State Department,” the official added.

However, Armenian-American leaders believe that Evans’s remarks were hardly accidental or spontaneous. The diplomat, they say, is too experienced to speak out on such a sensitive subject without consulting with his superiors.

Commentators in Yerevan agreed with this line of reasoning. The daily Hayots Ashkhar wrote that the remarks were “undoubtedly agreed with the U.S. administration.” “The statement by Ambassador Evans was aimed at sending a message to Ankara,” claimed another paper, Azg.

That message, Armenian observers say, could be a renewed U.S. push for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border — something that the Americans believe would substantially ease tensions between the two historical foes and shore up stability in the volatile region. Ankara shut the border in 1993, at the height of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Karabakh, out of solidarity with Azerbaijan. It has since made the lifting of the embargo conditional on a resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

According to a government-connected American scholar who chaired the U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), they nearly yielded in the summer of 2003 when the Armenian-American lobbying groups were trying to push yet another genocide resolution through Congress. David L. Phillips writes in his recently published book, Unsilencing the Past, that Vice-President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials warned visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul at the time that the White House will have trouble scuttling such resolutions if the Turkish-Armenian border is not reopened. Phillips says the frontier remained closed because U.S. pressure on Ankara eased in the following months due to a deteriorating security situation in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Armenian-American lobbying groups are seizing upon the controversy for a fresh attempt to win explicit genocide recognition from the Bush administration in the run-up to the April 24 Genocide Remembrance Day marked by Armenians around the world. While condemning “one of the great tragedies of history,” the current U.S. president until now has stopped short of calling it genocide in his annual April 24 messages to the Armenian community. What Bush says this time around could give answers to the questions raised by his Yerevan-based envoy’s pronouncements.

(RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 28, March 2; Hayots Ashkhar, February 28; Azg, February 28)