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Armenia: Descendents Urge U.S. To Say Forefathers Were Victims Of Genocide

  • Andrew Tully

For years, Americans of Armenian descent have been trying to persuade an American president to formally declare that their ancestors were the victims of genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923. The current president, George W. Bush, has indicated that he may do that. But Bush must also weigh the wishes of Turkey, a valuable part of the Western alliance. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last year, during his successful run for U.S. president, George W. Bush made a statement that came very close to one that Armenians have been waiting to hear from so prominent an American leader.

For years, Armenians have wanted the world to declare that 1.5 million Armenians were the victims of genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923. But so far, the American government has avoided doing so for fear of offending its ally, Turkey.

Bush's statement, however -- in a letter issued to several Armenian-American groups during his run for the presidency -- said Armenians were the victims of what he called a "genocidal campaign." The candidate said he would ensure that the U.S. -- as he put it -- "properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people." Then in February -- after he was inaugurated -- Bush reminded a group of Armenian-Americans of this promise.

The president may have to make good on that promise soon. Armenian-Americans are bringing pressure on the Bush administration to declare that Armenians were the victims of genocide. The pressure is increasing with the approach of 24 April -- the date on which Armenians around the world will mark the 86th anniversary of the Ottoman Turkish edict that they say set in motion the first genocide of the 20th century.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey was at war with Russia. Armenian revolutionaries fighting for the Russian tsar tried to recruit Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman government responded with an assault on its Armenian citizens. It hanged intellectuals and drove entire families on foot through the Syrian desert in what was called a "relocation" effort. According to Armenian advocacy groups, disease, hunger, or militias killed 1.5 million of these displaced Armenians. Today these groups want the U.S. to declare that this was genocide.

So far, the Bush administration is not saying whether it plans to make such a declaration. In fact, over the years, American presidents have opposed efforts in Congress to pass resolutions urging the U.S. government to make this declaration.

A spokesman for the State Department, who requested that his name not be used, said the new secretary of state, Colin Powell, believes such a resolution would not be "constructive," as he put it, because it could not help the actual victims, and would not help people today deal with current problems.

But if the Bush administration decides not to make the declaration, it will be resisting a lot of pressure. Two Armenian-American interest groups -- the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America -- have persuaded 101 sympathetic members of the U.S. Congress to write a letter to Bush congratulating the president for what they call his "stand on the affirmation of the Armenian genocide." And it invited the president to seek their cooperation to promote the cause further.

The Armenian National Committee of America also has mounted a campaign under which like-minded members of the public are mailing postcards to Bush. The cards include a photo of the president, as well as his statement on the deaths of Armenians.

These campaigns can be potent. Bush will not face re-election for more than three years, but he may have to satisfy Armenian-Americans if he wants a second term as president, according to Van Krikorian, chairman of the board of directors of the Armenian Assembly of America. He says a poll of Armenian-Americans in the southeastern state of Florida found that at least 25,000 of them voted for Bush.

Florida was the pivotal state for Bush's victory in last November's election. And he won the state by a margin of only 537 votes. But Krikorian says his organization will not try to urge Armenian-Americans to vote against Bush during the 2004 elections. The main reason, he explains, is that these voters do not need to be urged.

"All our families came here as refugees from then, from that time [1915 to 1923]. You know, we've had more recent waves of immigrants from the Middle East and then from [the] Soviet Union, but they're all cognizant and feel the same way [about the U.S. declaring an Armenian genocide]."

Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the ANCA, agrees. He told RFE/RL that the decision is entirely up to Bush and his advisers.

"His [Bush's] responses to issues of concern to Armenian-American voters will obviously have an effect on how people view him and whether or not they will vote for him for a second term."

The government of Turkey has consistently opposed any effort to have the U.S. government declare that Armenians were victims of genocide. It argues that the Armenians were the victims of war, and that hundreds of thousands of Turks -- including civilians -- were killed in the same war. Ankara also stresses that Turks do not want to be branded as being guilty of genocide. And it stresses that the U.S. cannot afford to lose Turkey's goodwill.

Ankara points out that it is a crucial ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) both politically as well as militarily. It notes that it has helped in the Middle East peace process, the Balkans, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Namik Tan, a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, told RFE/RL that his government does not expect the Bush administration to act any differently than its predecessors, which have refused to declare Armenians the victims of genocide.

Nevertheless, Tan says Turkish-American advocacy groups -- like the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations -- are working to counter the efforts of their Armenian counterparts. He says they are mounting postal and email campaigns urging public opposition to any official U.S. declaration of an Armenian genocide. And he says representatives of the Turkish government are sending similar messages to officials in Washington.

"When we talk to our American friends, we try to explain to them that this would be really, you know, disastrous -- [have] a disastrous effect on our relations."

But despite Turkey's objections, there will be pressure again this year for Congress to consider yet another resolution urging the U.S. to declare that Armenians were subject to genocide. But a spokeswoman for one congressman -- Randy Cunningham (R-California) -- says that legislative effort is not a certainty this year.

Cunningham is one of the 101 members of Congress who signed the letter urging Bush to say Armenians were the victims of genocide. His press secretary, Harmony Allen, says the congressman probably will wait to see how Bush responds to the letter before deciding whether to press for the formal resolution.

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