For months the Bush administration has been unable to appoint a new U.S. ambassador to Armenia due to a dispute with the influential Armenian community in the United States over the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. The row broke out last summer and is continuing amid growing indications that at least one of the houses of the U.S. Congress will soon recognize the World War I-era deaths of more than a million Ottoman Armenians as genocide.
The diplomatic post has been vacant since September, when the previous U.S. envoy, John Evans, left the Armenian capital. Evans is believed to have had his tour of duty cut short because of his public descriptions of the Armenian massacres as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” His apparent recall infuriated the Armenian-American community, which for decades has been campaigning for official U.S. recognition of what most historians regard as a deliberate effort to exterminate the Armenian population of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Like his predecessors, President George W. Bush has refrained from using the word “genocide” with regard to the massacres, anxious not to antagonize Turkey, a major U.S. ally that maintains that Armenians died in much smaller numbers as a result of internal strife, rather than a premeditated government policy. Richard Hoagland, a career diplomat nominated by Bush for the job, stuck to this line during confirmation hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last June, prompting strong criticism from pro-Armenian members of the panel. Just when the White House seemed to have overcome their objections, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), placed a “hold” on Hoagland’s confirmation in September.
Menendez repeated the extraordinary move on January 11, two days after Bush re-nominated the diplomat. “We must call genocide by its name,” he said in a statement. Also urging the administration to nominate a new candidate was Harry Reid (D-NV), the new Senate majority leader. Both lawmakers have been praised by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), one of the two main Armenian lobbying organizations. But the more moderate Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) believes that the U.S.-Armenian community has gotten its message across and should now stop obstructing Hoagland’s appointment.
In a January 17 statement, the AAA said the presence of a U.S. ambassador in Yerevan is “vitally important” for Armenia. Pro-Western circles in Armenia share this view, with the Yerevan daily Aravot editorializing on January 11 that Armenian-American leaders should back away from further confrontation with Washington. The Armenian government, which formally agreed to Hoagland’s appointment last year, has declined to comment on the controversy.
Buoyed by the Democratic takeover of Congress, both the ANCA and the AAA helped to circulate this month a new draft resolution that calls on Bush to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide.” It has already been co-sponsored by more than one hundred members of the House of Representatives. Two similar bills were already approved by the Republican-controlled House International Relations Committee in September 2005, but they never reached the House floor because of strong opposition from the White House. The new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is a longtime advocate of Armenian issues. “I think we have the best chance probably in a decade to get an Armenian genocide resolution passed,” Adam Schiff (D-CA), another pro-Armenian congressman, said on December 25.
The genocide recognition drive is expected to gain new momentum after the January 19 assassination in Istanbul of Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor and vocal challenger of the official Turkish version of the bloody events of 1915-18. The daylight shooting, widely linked with Dink’s public pronouncements, drew strong international condemnation and will put Turkey under greater pressure to confront one of the darkest episodes of its Ottoman past.
Ironically, Dink was among the few Armenians who believed that Armenia and its worldwide diaspora should focus on educating the Turks instead of lobbying for genocide resolutions by the U.S. and other Western parliaments. “Turkish society needs time to learn things,” he said at a September news conference in Yerevan. “There needs to be a serious examination of history. Armenians must play a role in that examination.”
Many Armenians, including the Washington-based lobbyists, will now argue that Dink’s violent death showed that international pressure is indispensable for a genuine Turkish-Armenian dialogue. “Today’s brutal murder serves as a wake up call to the United States and the entire international community to unite together in ending forever the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian Genocide,” the ANCA executive director, Aram Hamparian, said in a statement.
Turkish-Armenian reconciliation is also seriously hampered by the absence of diplomatic relations and an open land border between Armenia and Turkey. Successive Turkish governments have made normalization of bilateral ties primarily conditional on a resolution of the Karabakh conflict that would be acceptable to Azerbaijan, Turkey’s main regional ally. Ankara refuses to drop this precondition despite pressure from the United States and the European Union.
Kaan Soyak, a co-chair of the non-government Turkish-Armenian Business Connection (TABC), predicted on January 15 that the Turkish blockade will not be lifted before a Karabakh settlement. TABC was set up in 1996 to promote a rapprochement between the two neighboring states. “We then hoped that the border will open next month,” the Turkish businessman told reporters in Yerevan. “We now want to [see it] open before we die.”
(Western news agencies, January 19; Statement by the ANCA, January 19; Statement by the AAA, January 17; Haykakan Zhamanak, January 16; Aravot, January 11; RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 11, September 19)