WASHINGTON — Once again, the Obama administration has shied-away from using the word genocide to describe what befell Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago.
Despite Obama’s pledges as a presidential candidate to use this term, his White House — like those before it — appears reluctant to offend a NATO ally on the front lines of so many conflicts in the Middle East.
Instead the Obama administration speaks obliquely of the “1915 atrocities” that “extinguished” 1.5 million lives — without saying who was responsible for the killing. But academics and think-tankers in Washington say there is growing recognition that the deaths of Armenians in Turkey during World War I was the result of a genocidal campaign by Ottoman Turkish authorities that began with mass deportation of Armenians from Istanbul on April 24, 1915.
“It’s a matter of time” before the US government catches up with the academic consensus about those tragic events, Arman Grigoryan, an assistant professor of international relations at Lehigh University who emigrated from Armenia 20 years ago, told Al-Monitor. He said there had been a significant increase in awareness about the genocide in the United States and around the world, including more frequent use of the term by mainstream media.
Kemal Kirisci, director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, agreed with Grigoryan. “I use the term,” he told Al-Monitor. “There is growing recognition that something nasty befell the Armenian community in the Ottoman period and Turks are painfully revisiting this history.”
Recognition is one thing, however; statecraft another.
“There’s the history and there’s the politics,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a new book, “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide.”
“There is not a dispute anymore about the history,” de Waal told Al-Monitor, but about how Turks and Armenians should come to terms with it and what the impact might be on efforts to normalize relations between their two modern states.
One side of the debate, de Waal told Al-Monitor, are advocates for “holding Turkey’s feet to the fire, another group asks why let a century-old tragedy get in the way of real stuff happening today and a bunch of liberals in the middle says, ‘yes it was genocide but this isn’t going to be solved by preaching to the Turks but by Turks talking among themselves.’”
The Justice and Development Party under the leadership of former prime minister, now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has helped advance the debate by apologizing for crimes committed against Armenians and other minorities. But the Erdogan government rejects evidence that the Ottomans carried out a systematic effort to eliminate the Armenian population and has called for an international commission to study the issue.
Erdogan also infuriated Armenians and their supporters this year by timing a ceremony marking the Gallipoli campaign of World War I to coincide with a major commemoration in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, April 24 of the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, on his first official visit to Washington, defended Turkish policies toward Armenia and Armenians. At a press conference April 20 at the Carnegie Endowment, he said that there are 40,000 Armenian citizens in Turkey and two Armenian candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections. He added that the government was renovating Armenian churches and supporting the Armenian patriarchy in Istanbul as well as “taking courageous steps toward reconciliation” with the government in Yerevan.
However, the border between the two neighbors remains closed and an agreement negotiated by the Swiss with an assist from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 has foundered over continued differences regarding the breakaway Azeri republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Meanwhile, parliaments in European countries including Austria and Germany have endorsed resolutions using the word genocide to describe Ottoman actions against Armenians. Pope Francis on April 12 called the slaughter of Armenians “the first genocide of the 20th century,” prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador from the Vatican.
Experts in Washington say the word used to describe the events is important, but should not stand in the way of the process to promote healing. A conference is scheduled in Washington in mid-May, sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment and MIT’s Center for International Studies, to discuss how to advance the issue beyond name calling. The conference is in honor of Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian journalist and advocate of reconciliation who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007.
Dink believed that outside criticism would not be productive and that it was more important to educate Turks about the events so they could come to terms with what occurred a century ago.
“I tend to agree that Turkey should be left alone to deal with this issue rather than trying to ram this down Turkey’s throat,” Kirisci said.
Kirisci and Grigoryan agreed that Erdogan had contributed in significant ways to Turkish recognition of a bloody past.
“In the beginning he did make some gestures that were quite hopeful," Grigoryan said. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited then Turkish president Abdullah Gul to Armenia in 2008 to attend a soccer game, an invitation that was reciprocated by Gul in 2009. “There is also a significant constituency in Turkey for normalizing relations with Armenia.”
But concerns about alienating Turkish nationalists in advance of this summer’s parliamentary elections have led Erdogan lately to take a less conciliatory line.
“Erdogan is a very strange politician,” Grigoryan said. “It’s hard to pin down his position. Sometimes he’s conciliatory, sometimes the opposite.”
The grandson of genocide survivors who lost their original spouses in the flight from Turkey, Grigoryan told Al-Monitor that the events of 1915 are as much “a part of Armenian culture and outlook” as the Holocaust is for Jews.
“It’s becoming not just morally questionable to deny it but it’s starting to look ridiculous,” he said, predicting that eventually even a US president would say the word.