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Armenia: Analysis From Washington -- Recovering The Past

Washington, 13 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A decision by an American insurance company to compensate the heirs of Armenians who were killed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 not only will put pressure on other firms to do the same but also will raise the stakes in Armenian efforts to have those long-ago events recognized as a genocide.

The New York Life Insurance Company announced on 11 April that it has agreed to pay 10,000 heirs of ethnic Armenians who had purchased insurance polices from that firm prior to 1915 benefits ten times the face value of the policy and also to contribute $3 million to Armenian civic groups. The agreement, long sought by the heirs but resisted by the company because many of the people involved lacked documentation, must still be approved by U.S. courts.

Lawyers for the Armenian claimants said they were "gratified" that New York Life had agreed to this "well-deserved settlement." They also pointed out that the American company's behavior was "in sharp contrast" to that of European insurers which in most cases, the lawyers said, have "not been as forthcoming with policyholder information" or as willing to discuss a settlement with claimants.

The most immediate beneficiaries of the New York Life case, of course, will be the thousands of ethnic Armenians whose relatives died in eastern Anatolia during World War I and who now stand to recover significant amounts of money. As a result, both they and their supporters are likely to see this corporate move as yet another step toward a recovery of the past.

But the decision almost certainly will have another consequence, one that may be very different from what this group of claimants and their backers would like.

For many years, Armenians have sought to gain international recognition that the killing of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in 1915 by officers of the Ottoman Empire was a genocide, an ethnically motivated crime. During the last several years, they have achieved some success such as when the French Senate recently approved a resolution to this effect -- despite efforts by the Turkish government to argue that the deaths, which everyone acknowledges, were the product of civil conflicts and wartime conditions.

Because of the importance of Turkey to NATO and other Western institutions, many governments have intervened to try to block attempts by legislatures. Last year, for example, then U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened to ask the U.S. Congress not to pass a bill declaring the events of 1915 a genocide because such a declaration would offend Turkey. In response, Congressional leaders did not allow the bill to come to a vote.

Armenians and their supporters have been gaining ground nonetheless in this campaign in large measure because they argue that the events of 1915 are a matter of historical accuracy. And as that date recedes into the past, they suggest, international recognition of those events as a genocide does not necessarily entail material consequences for Turkey or others now.

But in their response to these Armenian efforts, Turkish officials and analysts supporting them have always argued that calling the events of 1915 a genocide is not only historically inaccurate but that the Armenians will use any such declarations to make demands for reparations of one kind or another. And they have thus insisted that governments which want good relations with Ankara must not take such a step.

The New York Life decision, especially as the payouts on the policies are fully calculated and reported, will only reinforce the views of those in Turkey that they must continue to resist any and all efforts to call the events of 1915 a genocide. And that in turn could mean that the volume of the arguments over 1915 will increase as both sides conclude that the stakes are higher than they had imagined.