On April 5, U.S. President Barack Obama will arrive in Turkey, making it the first Muslim country he visits after taking office. Analysts say his trip will aim at strengthening ties with Ankara, and point to the issue of the Armenian Genocide as possibly the most challenging for the president to deal with during his talks with Turkish officials.
On several occasions during his campaign for president, Obama had promised to properly recognize the massacres and deportations of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, thus angering Turkey, which continues to vehemently deny that there was any genocidal intent towards the Armenians in the last years of the empire. Official Ankara spends millions of dollars in its denial campaign, which lobbies politicians, entices support from journalists, funds academic denial efforts, suppresses education efforts on the Armenian Genocide to the general public in North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East (Israel especially).
For decades, Turkey has been struggling against resolutions in parliaments around the world recognizing the genocide. Twenty countries, including Russia, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, and Argentina, have already recognized the Armenian massacres and deportations as genocide, citing the overwhelming consensus of historians and genocide scholars on the subject.
The main battlefield for genocide recognition in recent years has been the United States, where a majority of Members of Congress support passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. But at least twice in recent history, voting on such resolutions has been postponed or put on hold at the last minute.
Armenian intellectuals, scholars, and leaders I interviewed this week expect Obama to stand firmly behind his convictions during his trip and to send a clear signal to Turkish officials that while he values Turkey’s friendship, he will acknowledge the Armenian Genocide in the president’s annual statement on Armenian Remembrance Day because truth and good relations need not be mutually exclusive.
Turkish officials, on the other hand, hope that the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia can be used as a bargaining chip to keep Obama from speaking the truth. On numerous occasions in recent months, top Turkish officials have warned the U.S. that interfering in discussions between Turkey and Armenia and recognizing the genocide would be detrimental to the budding relations between Yerevan and Ankara.
“I hope President Obama will impress upon the Turkish leaders the importance of facing the dark chapters of their history honestly, their understanding that the United States can recognize the Armenian Genocide as a historical fact and still remain good friends and allies with Turkey, and advise them of the undesirability of making threatening statements against the U.S.,” said Harut Sassounian, one of the most widely read Armenian columnists and the publisher of the California Courier.
“Furthermore, since President Ronald Reagan signed a Presidential Proclamation on the Armenian Genocide in 1981, President Obama should tell the Turks that his April 24 statement would contain nothing new or earth-shattering. In keeping with his campaign pledge, he would be simply repeating what has already been acknowledged by a former president,” Sassounian said.
Prominent Armenian American author Peter Balakian asks Obama not to be intimidated by Ankara. “President Obama is a shrew reader of the world; I hope he will see that the U.S. does not need to be intimated by a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world over the past several decades,” he said. “We can only hope he is able to balance pragmatic politics with ethical integrity. We know he understands the truth of history,” he added.
Garen Yegparian, a columnist for several Armenian American newspapers, said, “I hope President Obama, on his Turkey visit, sits [Turkish President] Gul and [Prime Minister] Erdogan down, and says, ‘Listen guys, this charade has to end. I’m willing to help you out of the hole your political predecessors have dug for you. I’ll make a good statement on the Armenian Genocide. You guys raise a hue-and-cry, act like the sky is falling, and demand a meeting with me. You can then come to the White House and we’ll figure out how to do things from then out. This way, we’ll pacify the loudest Armenians, at least long enough to figure out how to get them on board for a permanent, mutually acceptable solution. Now, let’s go to your favorite doner kebab place.'”
“We look to the President, as a man of his word, despite the latest round of warnings he’ll no doubt hear from the Turkish government, to maintain his principled support for U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” said Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, a grassroots organization that has for decades fought for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. and is active nationally in several anti-genocide campaigns.
“The U.S. response to the Armenian Genocide must no longer be dealt with down at the level of Turkey’s threats, but rather, as the president has so powerfully articulated, as a matter of fundamental American values,” Hamparian added.
Official Yerevan, although committed to establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey, also believes that any normalization with Ankara should not be at the expense of casting doubt on the veracity of the genocide. Statements to this effect have been made by both Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian.
“I think Obama decided to visit Turkey so soon in his term to demonstrate how much the U.S. values Turkey’s friendship, and hence, he will personally inform the Turkish leadership that the reason he will reaffirm the official U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide is for Turkey’s own good, and that’s what close friends should do,” said Giro Manoyan, the political director of the ARF Bureau in Yerevan. The ARF is a junior partner in Armenia’s governing coalition.
“If President Obama does not use the word ‘genocide’ by this April 24, then his visit to Turkey would mean adding insult to injury as far as the Armenian American community is concerned. I think by delivering what he has time and again committed himself to, he will be helping the ongoing Armenia-Turkey negotiations, because he will be sending a clear message to Turkey that it needs to come to terms with its own history, and based on that establish true neighborly relations with Armenia,” added Manoyan, expressing hope that Obama “does not become an accomplice in Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide.”