On October 10 the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee voted 27–21 to pass a non-binding resolution that labeled the deaths of Armenians during World War One as “genocide.” House Democratic leaders predicted a full House vote on the resolution would come before Thanksgiving. The vote represents the culmination of a decades-long campaign by the Armenian-American community to secure government recognition of their ancestors’ sufferings, led by the Armenian Assembly of America since its founding in 1972.
Hours before the vote President George W. Bush said, “Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror”; afterward White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel pointed to more pressing issues, commenting, “While the House is debating the Ottoman Empire, they are not moving forward with appropriations bills. The House has not appointed conferees, they aren’t coming to the table to discuss children’s health care, and they haven’t permanently closed the intelligence gap that will open up when the Protect America Act expires.”
The vote is visible proof of the influence of the Armenian lobby in Washington. It is not the first time that Washington has seen evidence of the lobby’s power. The collapse of Soviet power in the Caucasus in the late 1980s led to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Karabakh enclave , which only ended with a cease-fire signed in 1994, leaving Armenia in occupation of approximately 20% of what was previously Soviet Azerbaijan.
In 1992 lobbying by the Armenian-American community led to a provision in the Freedom Support Act that banned any direct U.S. aid to the Azerbaijani government as punishment for its blockade of Armenia. In January 2002 President George W. Bush waited Section 907 as a reward for Azeri support following the 9/11 terrorist attacks (January 25, 2002 Presidential Determination No. 2002-06, www.whitehouse.gov).
In April 2001, even before the waiver of Section 907, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s first major foreign initiative was to try and resolve the Karabakh dispute during a summit in Key West, Florida, where he met with Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian. The meetings, which were held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group co-chairs France, Russia, and United States, proved fruitless.
Despite Armenia’s sense of victory on the issue in Washington, the fact remains that its closest political allies in the region, Russia and Iran, are hardly viewed by the Bush administration with approval. Russia has persistently championed Armenia as a counterweight to both Georgia and Azerbaijan, and in 1995 Russia’s Duma recognized Armenia’s claims of genocide. Russia also contains a significant portion of the Armenian diaspora; authorities estimate that approximately three million Armenians live in the Russian Federation.
The president of the World Armenian Congress and the Union of Armenians of Russia, Ara Abramyan, commented on the close nature of Russian-Armenian relations, stating, “The contemporary configuration of forces in South Caucasus is such that Armenia needs close military-political and economic relations with Russia while Russia needs Armenia as an ally in a region which is key to Russian interests. Therefore, the strategic union and strategic partnership existing between our countries is not the result of wishes or emotions of politicians. This is a harsh reality, it is politics based on the fundamental interests of both countries” (Azg, October 9).
In a further rebuff to Washington’s regional diplomatic clout, a prominent Armenian intellectual has even suggested that Moscow might broker the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations. According to Ruben Safrastian, director of the Oriental Studies Institute at the Armenian National Academy of Science, “Russia’s interest in Armenia, as a regional ally, as well as the deep roots of Russian-Armenian relations create a favorable atmosphere for Russian diplomats to more actively mediate in the normalization and establishment of Armenian-Turkish relations.” Safrastian cautioned, however, “Russia and Turkey approach each other primarily as economic partners, and partially politically. The two countries, however, have remained rivals from the geopolitical viewpoint” (Interfax-AVN, October 11).
Washington might still yet have a role to play in the final settlement of Karabakh, as it is currently holding discussions with its OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs Russia and France (Trend, October 11). What remains unclear at the moment is that, having delighted the Armenian lobby with the congressional resolution, what will the fallout be with Washington’s close NATO ally — Turkey — and what impact this may have on the Pentagon’s potential further use of the Turkish Incirlik airbase and Ankara’s intentions toward Kurdish guerrillas operating from bases in northern Iraq. Whatever its policies in the short term, it seems most unlikely that Washington will be able to mollify both Yerevan and Ankara and whether in the long run such resolutions will grow quiet or further inflame an already volatile region.