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U.S.: Confirmation Row Shows Power Of Diaspora Lobbies

  • Julie Corwin --> Ambassador-designate Hoagland at a Senate confirmation hearing on August 1 (ANCA) The U.S. Senate on August 1 decided once again to postpone its confirmation of the man designated to serve as the new U.S. ambassador to Armenia. Richard Hoagland has raised concern among some lawmakers because of his refusal to characterize the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century as genocide.

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, recommending that Hoagland's confirmation be postponed until a future date, summarized his doubts about the official White House stance on the genocide debate.

"I know that the administration's not likely to change their policy," he said. "But there was genocide in Armenia, and it's very difficult to deny history."

Issues & Influence

In all, nine of the 18 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have pressed Hoagland to clarify U.S. policy on the Armenian genocide debate.

It might seem surprising that so many U.S. lawmakers are prepared to weigh in on the politically loaded debate over whether the Ottoman-era killing of Armenians by Turks constitutes genocide.

The prominence of the issue is due in large part to the efforts of two powerful lobbying groups -- the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), and the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA).

The logo of the Armenian National Committee of America (courtesy graphic)

There are lobbying groups representing the concerns of nearly every diaspora community in the United States. The Armenian lobby is one of the most successful.

Bryan Ardouny is the executive director of the AAA. He says the issue remains high on the group's agenda.

"We will continue to press forward with the ultimate goal of having the United States, on record, reaffirming the Armenian genocide," he says.

Record Of Success

The Armenian lobby has scored other victories as well.

Both the AAA and the ANCA were instrumental in persuading lawmakers to block U.S. financing for a proposed railway that would link Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan but circumvent Armenia.

They also played a role in legislation passed in 1992 that excluded Azerbaijan from a list of former Soviet republics available for U.S. aid.

The exclusion, meant to censure Baku for what was termed "offensive use of force" against Armenia and the ethnic Armenian exclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, remained in force until 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush granted the first in a series of annual waivers of the provision.

Fingerprints Not Required

Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee, says his lobby also helped remove Armenia from a U.S. list of countries considered sources of potential terrorists.

AAA Executive Director Bryan Ardouny(courtesy photo)

"A few years ago the Justice Department placed Armenia on a [terrorism] watch list," Hamparian says. "This meant citizens from Armenia would need to register and be photographed and fingerprinted and all the rest. And we were successful in just the course of a couple of days in getting Armenia taken off that list."

So what makes the Armenian lobby so successful?

Yerevan, to a greater degree than Baku, is dependent on the largely loyal U.S. lobby groups to advance its agenda in Washington.

It's not a matter of strength in numbers. There are fewer than 2 million Armenian-Americans living in the United States, a country with a population of nearly 300 million.

But diaspora members like Hamparian say the community is bound by a common belief in the power of political participation.

And although the majority of Armenian-Americans are concentrated on the East and West coasts of the United States, Hamparian says the community is represented and active in almost every congressional district across the United States.

A Study In Contrasts

The success of the Armenian lobby runs in sharp contrast to that of Armenia's South Caucasus neighbor, Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, like Armenia, has its own congressional caucus -- a group of U.S. lawmakers who pursue common legislative objectives.

But while the Armenian caucus is highly active, its Azerbaijani counterpart is considered far less effective.

The Azerbaijani lobby's biggest victory to date has been the annual presidential waiver on U.S. aid restrictions. Beyond that, however, it has had little influence.

Facing The Giant

Glen Howard is the director of the Jamestown Foundation, a public policy group that monitors developments in the former Soviet Union. He compares the Azerbaijani and Armenian U.S. lobby groups to David and Goliath -- but says there's reason to believe Azerbaijani-Americans will catch up.

"The Armenians have been practicing and organized for a very long time, much longer than the Azerbaijanis," Howard says. "But then again, the Turks 40 years ago did not have a lobby, and it took them quite a while. But they eventually reached a level stage where they can compete and hold their ground with the Armenians."

Just as the Turkish lobby squares off against the Armenians on the genocide issue, many Azerbaijani-Americans would like to increase their influence in the debate over Nagorno-Karabakh.

But while the Armenian diaspora comprises several generations and maintains close, nationalistic ties with Armenia proper, the U.S. Azerbaijani community is less rooted -- many Azerbaijani-Americans are first-generation. They are also more diverse, with many coming not from Azerbaijan, but Iran.

Divergent Views

Bedir Memmedli, a member of the Washington-based Azerbaijan Society of America, says the views of the Azerbaijani diaspora diverge on some points -- but do come together on a few key issues.

"There are a lot of common issues we all share -- for example, the occupation of Azerbaijan by our neighboring Armenia. There is also the oppression of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, cultural discrimination against Azerbaijanis in Iran," Memmedli says.

"These are common issues that we are all concerned about. But there are also some specific issues -- for example, those Azerbaijanis from the Republic of Azerbaijan, they usually ask or try to have their voices heard regarding such issues as putting more investment in Azerbaijan's economy."

Lobbies Vs. Leaders

The Azerbaijani lobby may be struggling for influence with U.S. lawmakers. But Washington is somewhat more receptive when it comes to the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev.

The logo of the Azerbaijan Society of America (courtesy graphic)

Aliyev, who presides over an ascendant oil-fed economy and geographic proximity to Iran, in April visited the White House for talks with President Bush.

Aliyev's Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, has yet to receive a similar invitation. Yerevan, to a greater degree than Baku, is dependent on the largely loyal U.S. lobby groups to advance its agenda in Washington.

How To Help?

Richard Giragosian, an independent security analyst and regular contributor to RFE/RL, says the two diaspora communities have "very different" perceptions about ties to their home government.

"From a political standpoint, the diaspora for Armenia is seen as a pillar of support for the state, and for the regime, in terms of lobbying leverage. And the diaspora, for the Armenians, is almost an element of state power, or an element of foreign policy," he says.

"Interestingly, in Azerbaijan's case, it's the exact opposite, where Azerbaijan seeks to co-opt its diaspora, because it basically sees it as a potential threat to the regime -- the youth, and the diaspora. And it seeks basically to co-opt any potential for revolutions of fruit or flower" -- a reference to the Orange, Rose, and Tulip revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

It isn't a guarantee that Azerbaijan will benefit from a U.S. lobby that acts in lockstep with Baku. Giragosian says officials in Armenia sometimes feel the nationalistic zeal of the Armenian-American lobbies leaves Yerevan with less leverage in terms of foreign policy.

This is particularly true on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, where, he says, Yerevan sometimes feels the diaspora has been "more a liability than an asset."

Examining History

CALL IT GENOCIDE? Questions surrounding the mass killings of Armenians at the beginning of the last century continue to dominate relations between Armenia and Turkey. In April, Ankara proposed conducting a joint Armenian-Turkish investigation into the mass killings and deportations of Armenians during World War I.
Turkish leaders suggested that the two countries set up a joint commission of historians to determine whether the massacres carried out between 1915 and 1917 constituted genocide. Armenia, however, insisted it would continue to seek international recognition and condemnation of what it says was a deliberate attempt at exterminating an entire people....(more)

See also:

Armenians Mark 90th Anniversary Of Start Of Massacres

Armenia: Tragedy Remains On Europe’s Political Map

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