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Armenia/Turkey: U.S. Congress Considering Controversial Resolution

From 1915 to 1923, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Some members of the U.S. Congress want to require the American government to formally recognize this as genocide. But U.S. presidents want to avoid alienating Turkey, a crucial ally. On Thursday, a leading congressional committee will decide whether to bring the resolution before the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote.

Washington, 27 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress is considering a controversial resolution that would urge the American government to recognize the many deaths of Armenians during World War I as genocide committed by Turkey.

The measure -- House Resolution 398, or HR398 -- has been approved by a subcommittee of the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives. The full committee is expected to vote Thursday (Sept. 28) on whether to bring the measure before the full House.

The resolution would be non-binding, so it ultimately would have no formal effect. Even so, it is generating strong protests from the government of Turkey. It has warned that if the U.S. House of Representatives approves it, there will be what Ankara called "serious repercussions" on its relations with America.

No one questions whether hundreds of thousands of Armenians died during the rule of the Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923. What is at question is whether they died as a result of deliberate genocide.

Those who favor HR398 say it is important for all people to recognize the first example of genocide in the 20th century. They say that at the time, the Turks acted against Armenians with impunity.

And Congressman George Radanovich (R-California), who sponsored the resolution, says recognizing genocide as early as possible can help prevent future such atrocities.

"This was a genocide that -- had it been recognized early in the century -- may have led toward intervention of [against] the Nazi holocaust. And I think with all the violence in the world, it's important to recognize it wherever it's found, even though it happened 85 years ago."

But Turkey resents the idea that it should be accused of genocide. Namik Tan, the spokesman for the Turkish embassy in Washington, told RFE/RL that Turks do not want themselves and their descendants to be branded as being guilty of genocide.

"I think nobody on the face of the Earth could ever accept this. And we will never, ever accept this."

Tan pointed out that Turkey is critically situated on Europe's southeastern flank. And he gave a long list of areas where Turkey helps the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) diplomatically as well as militarily. They range from the Middle East peace process to the Balkans to the friction between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus region.

The embassy spokesman said Washington cannot risk losing Turkey's goodwill.

Members of Congress have for years tried to pass similar legislation, but without success. And Radanovich says he will try to get the measure passed again if it fails to pass this year.

U.S. presidents, regardless of party affiliation, have opposed such resolutions, primarily because they say Turkey is too valuable an ally to insult. Most recently, on Monday (Sept. 25), State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the measure, if passed by the House of Representatives, could interfere with U.S. foreign policy.

"If this resolution is adopted by the full House of Representatives, it may complicate our efforts to bring peace and stability to the Caucasus and harm our relations with Turkey, our strategic partner in the region."

Some opponents of HR398 say Turkey could go so far as to withdraw from NATO or to stop letting the U.S. use its military bases. But Radanovich -- the sponsor of the measure -- dismisses this speculation. He says Turkey gets as much security out of its alliance with NATO -- and the U.S. -- as its partners do.

"I think Turkey's got much more at stake than the recognition of its genocide. They're not just doing a favor for the United States by being a military ally -- and they've been a good one for the last 40 years. But there's also some good things in it for Turkey as a result, and I don't think they're willing to give that up."

Domestic U.S. politics also plays a role in the debate. One of the most outspoken supporters of HR398 is Congressman James Rogan (R-California). He faces a difficult re-election challenge this year from a local politician, Adam Schiff.

Rogan is a member of the Republican Party, but his district in California is experiencing growth in the number of people who are associated with the opposing party, the Democrats. It also has many residents of Armenian descent. So observers say he hopes to win the votes of Armenian-Americans to help win on election day, November 7.

Many other vocal supporters of HR398 also come from districts in California and in New Jersey that have large populations of Armenian-Americans. They include Radanovich and Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey). Smith is the chairman of the subcommittee where the resolution originated.