Armenia Stands Between Biden’s Courage and Erdogan’s Fury

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The suspense is over. Since President Ronald Reagan referred to the Armenian Genocide indirectly in 1981, the Armenian community in the US has been going through a rollercoaster, raising its hopes every year with each presidential election and being disappointed every April 24.

For the Armenian people, the issue of genocide is the blood of its 1.5 million human beings; it is the loss of an ancestral homeland and desecration of cultural heritage. Yet, for the politicians, it is nothing more than a political football. That is why they can forget or renege on their promises so easily, so conveniently, talking about the overarching issues.

Donald Trump, perhaps, was the only presidential candidate who did not pledge recognition and nor did he deliver anything. But his White House responded diligently to the actions of the US House of Representatives and the Senate, which passed overwhelming resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Indeed, the White House spokesperson, after the 2019 adoption of the Congress resolution, announced that the president had not changed his opinion on the issue.

The recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the international community has been a tremendous challenge, while it has travelled a tortuous course in the power corridors of the United States. Although the US government had recognized the Armenian Genocide in 1948 when it signed the UN Genocide Convention (though it took another 40 years before it ratified it), in recent years, it had become a taboo word in the American political lexicon, always held back not to offend NATO ally Turkey.

The latter has managed to become such a powerful country that it can survive with impunity and gag the world’s greatest powers, forcing them to remain silent when the issue comes to the Armenian Genocide.

Armenians were most hopeful for the Obama presidency, because his pledge was delivered to the Armenian community through Samantha Power, the most forceful advocate of universal human rights and most knowledgeable on the issue of the Genocide, particularly as enunciated in her book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.

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In all fairness, President Obama’s memorial statement was the most descriptive of US presidents, while he showed exceptional courage by admonishing the current Turkish government to reckon with its past, delivered in a speech right in the Turkish Parliament in Ankara.

Samantha Power later apologized to the furious Armenian community and recently issued a statement circulated in the media, revealing a conversation at the ceremony in the National Cathedral during the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Then Vice President Biden confided at that time that he would have recognized the Genocide had he been in the position to do so. Today Ms. Power is back in power as the USAID chief, and she may have absolved herself in crafting President Biden’s historic statement.

Now that the magical word is finally out, many parties and groups and official quarters are claiming their share of glory.

For example, in Armenia, the blame for the recent defeat has been thrown like a football from one leader to another, while all lay claim to the credit for Biden’s statement.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is pushing the narrative that the US finally recognized the Armenian Genocide during his administration. We wish there was a connection and it were true. To the contrary, we had been very critical of the Armenian government for its apathy toward taking a stand and making an official appeal to the US president to finally use the “G” word, in the face of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government which had mobilized its full resources to force President Biden to change his intention.

Indeed, the very same week, before the proclamation, President Erdogan held a tumultuous forum inviting many scholars from different countries to disqualify the massacres as a genocide. Following that forum, President Erdogan chaired a government session with the same goal.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu and Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin, as well as Erdogan himself, made threatening remarks that Biden’s statement would create problems in Turkish-American relations and also deteriorate relations between Turkey and Armenia, where, in fact, none exist.

After the proclamation, the same sources stated that Biden’s act does not make any difference for Turkey. A simple common-sense question would be: if it does not make a difference, why all the commotion?

As far as the Armenian government is concerned, there were no commensurate initiatives to counter Turkey. On the contrary, many government officials refuse to publicly qualify Turkey as the enemy while others underplay its significance for Armenia and the Armenian case, except for the delayed reactions by Foreign Minister Ara Ayvazyan and Ambassador to US Varuzhan Nersesyan.

The reason the 46th president of the US defined the events that had happened to our people as a genocide, rather than a massacre, was because all the stars were properly aligned.

In the first place, deteriorating Turkish-American relations proved to be one of the determining factors. Since the founding of NATO, US-Turkey relations have experienced ebbs and flows. Now, they are at crisis-level as Turkey has taken the US and NATO for granted one too many times. It has used the cover of NATO to pursue its own nationalistic and Turanic agenda, always believing that invoking the NATO charter’s Article 5 will scare away any serious pushback if it gets into deep waters and is attacked while pursuing its agenda. Erdogan’s Middle Eastern antics have been too transparent to be ignored forever by a US administration.

Second, President Biden meant what he said, that human rights matter for him and for America. As a candidate, he had openly advocated courting Turkey’s opposition, yet President Erdogan took that as political rhetoric and continued his human rights abuses in Turkey. Biden’s proclamation sends more than one message to Turkey. In addition to looking back to the dark pages of history, he is holding Turkey responsible to live up to NATO and European Union standards. We believe firmly that it also draws a red line against Turkey’s threatening posture along Armenia’s borders.

Last but not least, it expresses the US discontent about hasty political arrangements between Russia and Turkey, bypassing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, especially as they did during the Armenian-Azerbaijan war. Biden declared, in essence, “America is back.”

The tremendous campaign that the Armenian-American community mounted through its news outlets, lobbying groups, political parties and prominent leaders and celebrities certainly helped with this point.

Unfortunately, the least credit should be assigned to the government of Armenia, despite the excuse of COVID and the devastating war.

Tatoul Hagopian, a prominent journalist and scholar, has published a timeline of Armenian-Turkish relations, outlining the trials and tribulations around the issue of Genocide recognition during the last 30 years.

The documents presented there do not confine the blame of inaction only on the current administration in Armenia; we can see that Turkey’s skillful diplomacy has fooled Armenian leaders many times.

The Turks governed an empire for more than six centuries, conducting diplomacy with European, Russian and Persian empires. That  experience has filtered down to the current era.

We find out in those documents that President Levon Ter-Petrosian resisted incorporating the Genocide issue in the first constitution, then he gave in to strong pressure to include it. President Robert Kocharyan has always been ready to trade the Genocide issue with the lifting of blockades of Armenia. Most damning is the video clip circulating now in social media where President Biden answers an Armenian youth in a gathering: “The Turks have to come to the realization of what the reality is. And what we got to do is, you know, this. The compromise that is going on, we have worked at for a while. The Armenian president [Reference is to Serzh Sargsyan] called me and said, ‘look, do not force this issue now while we are in negotiations. That is the past right now, so anyway, it’s a … [unclear].’ The reality has a way of intruding, OK?”

Even if that video clip turns out to be fake, its content is in line with Sargsyan’s actions and policies while in office.

In 2005, secret negotiations were being conducted between Armenia and Turkey. That eventually led to the Zurich Protocols in 2009 which also included the formation of a joint panel of scholars to reach to a conclusion about the events. President Sargsyan took the Turkish bait. Ter-Petrosian adamantly opposed the formation of that panel because it would intrinsically imply that Armenians are placing the veracity of the Genocide in doubt.

In response to Biden’s proclamation, the Turkish leaders have expressed themselves with fire and fury. Ibrahim Kalin has stated that Turkey will respond at a time of its choosing, in a way it sees as appropriate. Interestingly, Turkey has not recalled its ambassador from the US, which indicates that at this time Turkey needs America rather than the other way. Instead, it has just summoned the US ambassador to Turkey for a stern talking-to.

In addition to those fiery statements, President Erdogan has sent a message to His Grace Archbishop Sahag Mashalyan, Patriarch of Istanbul, but his audience is Armenia and the US. Erdogan states in his message that Turkey has always offered to improve relations with Armenia and that it is repeating that offer again. Mr. Erdogan said he believes that Mr. Biden or the world community have very short memories. Yet how can he reconcile his offer to improve relations with Armenia with his statement in Baku on December 10, 2020, where he evoked the memory of Enver Pasha, a genocide perpetrator, adding: “We are here to realize our forefathers’ unfinished plans.”

To confuse the issue and to sound fair, the issue of joint panel of scholars will be brought forth again and again. Fortunately, it was not formed during Serge Sargsyan’s administration.

Every time the issue resurfaces, the Armenian side has to remind the participants of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) experience, which was formed in 2001 and continued its work until 2004, comprising Turkish and Armenian representatives. In February 2002, an independent legal opinion commissioned by the International  center for Transitional Justice, at the request of TARC concluded that the Ottoman Genocide of Armenians in 1915-1918 “include[d] all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined by the [Genocide] Convention and legal scholars as well as historians, politicians, journalists and other people would be justified in continuing to do so describe them.”

After learning of this verdict, the Turkish members of TARC walked away as it was not the acceptable answer.

Any other panel that Mr. Erdogan would like to form will be no different than TARC. He wishes to reinvent the wheel and force the participating scholars to spin their own wheels in place to come up with a pre-ordained conclusion absolving Turkey rather than studying history.

Turkey will certainly retaliate against Mr. Biden’s proclamation, which in reality is less damaging than the F-35 program it lost out on.

Indeed, the US had temporarily frozen the F-35 combat aircraft program. Recently, the Biden administration cancelled it completely, ironically to a muted reaction from Ankara. Under that program, Turkey would have acquired 100 stealth war planes, in addition to the right to manufacture parts, injecting much-needed cash into Turkey’s moribund economy.

President Erdogan is smart enough to consider Turkey’s tenuous situation in many parts of the world and its crumbling economy. Erdogan’s cautious actions and smart moves may serve Turkey’s interests while containing his threatening shadow on Armenia’s borders.

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