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Will Obama Recognize 'Armenian Genocide'?

Speaking to the Turkish parliament, President Barack Obama said his views on the Armenian killings "are on the record and I have not changed my views."
(RFE/RL) -- The U.S. president is confronted with a tough choice.

Does he choose the first April 24 of his term in office to fulfill his campaign promise to recognize the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide?

Or does he put off his promised recognition for fear of angering Turkey and jeopardizing the improving relations between Yerevan and Baku?

The White House has given no hint of how it will act. But act it must. U.S. presidents for years have marked April 24 with a statement issued to the press and Obama must observe that tradition.

So far, no U.S. president has marked April 24 by declaring he recognizes the slaughter of Armenians as genocide. U.S. presidents have used the occasion of their annual message to Armenians to describe the events as mass killings, a calamity, or a tragedy -- but not genocide.

Only Ronald Reagan came very close to recognition. He included Armenians in his statement on April 22, 1981, observing "Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust."

"Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it -- and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples -- the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten," Reagan said.

Mounting Pressure

The pressure on Obama to still more clearly single out the Armenians as victims of genocide are high.

The president's home state, Hawaii, on April 6 declared April 24th as a "Day of Remembrance in Recognition of and Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915," making it the 42nd of the 50 U.S. states to take such a step.

And on March 17, a group of U.S. congressmen sponsored a resolution for Washington to officially declare the killings as genocide, as Canada and France have done.

But if pressure is high, it does not only come from one direction.

People lay flowers at the genocide memorial in Yerevan.
Turkey has long made it clear that it views what happened to Armenians in the World War I era as not the business of third parties.

Ankara sent a strong reminder of its position this week, saying on April 22 it had recalled its ambassador to Canada after Ottawa reaffirmed its position that Armenians were victims of genocide.

Obama is well aware he walks a tightrope.

His administration is trying to give impetus to the still delicate rapprochement drive between Armenia and Turkey. And Ankara has made it clear that any genocide statements in Washington would set back that process.

Sensitive Talks

Washington hopes Turkey will reestablish diplomatic relations with Yerevan that Ankara broke off in 1993 following Armenia's war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States also wants Turkey -- a NATO partner -- to reopen its border with Armenia, something that would restore Armenia's shortest land trade route to Europe.

Those steps are seen as helpful for stabilizing the South Caucasus, an area which has become a major worry for Washington following Russia's August war with Georgia. U.S. officials see Moscow as trying to reassert its influence in the volatile but energy-important region at the West's expense.

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood underlined Washington's hopes for the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as he welcomed on April 23 an announcement by Turkey and Armenia that they intend to normalize relations.

"What's important here is the fact that Turkey and Armenia have basically decided to normalize their relationship. To us, that is a huge step," Wood said.

"They're basically saying that we've got to move on from the past; we need to reconcile. While there are still going to be differences of opinion, it's clear that these two governments have taken the very difficult step to move that relationship forward."

Ankara and Yerevan announced jointly on April 22 that they "have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner." They did not provide details.

Moving Forward

In his visit to Turkey earlier this month, Obama appeared to signal that he might not see this anniversary as the time for a genocide statement if Turkey and Ankara were making progress toward rapprochement.

Speaking to the Turkish parliament on April 6, he said his views "are on the record and I have not changed my views."

Urging Ankara and Yerevan to work together, he said, "what I want to do is not focus on my views right now but focus on the views of the Turkish and the Armenian people."

He added, "If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage them."

Turkey and Armenia remain far apart on the question of what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, despite the fact April 24 now commemorates events that began almost a century ago.

Armenia, and genocide scholars, say 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks from 1915-23 in a campaign aimed at eliminating the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians have made April 24 "Genocide Remembrance Day" in recognition of the same date in 1915 when Armenian leaders were arrested and later executed.

Ankara says that up to 600,000 Armenians died during World War I and during deportations out of eastern Anatolia. But it says the deaths were in the context of an Armenian uprising as Armenians sided with invading Russian troops at the time.

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