Visiting Turkey on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama encouraged dialogue with Armenia, acknowledging the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915-1917 but stopping short of calling them “genocide.”
During the 2008 campaign, Obama had used the term “genocide” on his Web site, writing “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”
Turkey and Armenia are participating in negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic ties.
Onnik Krikorian is a freelance photojournalist and writer from the United Kingdom based in Yerevan, Armenia. He writes at the “Frontline Club” about Obama’s goals in Turkey and the Armenia question.
Obama Talks Turkey
History has the unfortunate habit of repeating itself as Armenians know only too well. This is especially true when it comes to U.S. presidential elections. Without fail, candidates running for the White House promise to recognize the WWI massacre and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians living in the then Ottoman Empire as genocide only to have them renege on such campaign promises when in office.
This time round, however, the large and influential Diaspora lobby in Washington had hoped things would be different with Barack Obama in power, and not least because of the inclusion of activists such as Samantha Power in his transition team. The arrival today of the U.S. president in Turkey, on the other hand, does not bode well. Of course, Armenians shouldn’t be surprised. There are other far more pressing matters for Obama to concern himself with.
To begin with, sending out the right message from secular Turkey to the Islamic world is vital in order to repair the damage caused by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Moreover, the U.S. continues to need Turkey’s help in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the August war between Georgia and Russia, Turkey’s potential role as a counterbalance to Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus has also become apparent.
When it comes to Armenia, the issue becomes especially complicated. While many in the Diaspora seek recognition of the genocide if only to punish Turkey as well as validate demands for territorial reparations, Armenia instead desparately wants the border with its historic foe opened. Closed during the height of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenian forces occupied 14 percent of Azerbaijan, Turkey’s main ally in the region.
Effectively blockaded by both, most of Armenia’s trade presently transits via Georgia and the August war with Russia effectively cut off its main access to the outside world. There are also hopes that normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey will benefit regional stability and contribute to finding a peaceful solution to long-running Armenian-Azeri conflict. More significantly, perhaps, a historical commission to examine the genocide will also be established.
That the massacre and deportation of most of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population constitutes genocide is hardly disputed, and not least because the events of 1915-17 were used as a case study by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term in 1943. Nevertheless, the precise number of those who perished is still unknown, as are some aspects of the actual events themselves, with some believing that comprehensive study is still necessary.
Of course, it is not impossible that Obama will refer to the killings as genocide, but most independent observers consider that to be unlikely. This is especially true given the arrival tomorrow of Armenia’s foreign minister in Istanbul to coincide with Obama’s visit. Many suspect that the two events and their timing are more than coincidental, especially as April is also the month when Armenians worldwide remember the tragic events of 1915-17.
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