The US House of Representatives, acting under intense pressure from the White House, cancelled a vote on non-binding Resolution 596, which would have recognized that the massacres of 1915-1923 in Ottoman Turkey against their Armenian citizens constituted a genocide. The action has disappointed many Armenians. Some view it as a victory of American national interests over ethnic lobbyists. For others, it is the victory of military interests and realpolitik over morality in foreign affairs.
The House International Relations Committee approved the resolution on October 3. But President Bill Clinton, along with top members of the Administration, vigorously opposed the resolution, saying it would damage US strategic interests. The Administration's opposition eventually prompted House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to cancel the resolution vote.
Turkish pressure seems to have influenced the White House's decision to oppose the resolution. Turkey had warned that adoption of the resolution would hurt US-Turkish relations, and imperil the US ability to use Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for patrolling the "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq. Moreover, Ankara had threatened to cancel a $4.5 billion deal to buy US attack helicopters.
The House's decision prompted criticism from Armenians. Hovannes Hovannisian, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Armenian parliament, deplored the bill's unexpected withdrawal. He drew parallels between the Clinton Administration and the French government, which blocked the discussion of a similar genocide initiative in the French Senate earlier this year.
Developments also left Armenian-American groups upset. It is clear that US foreign policy is "held hostage to Turkish threats," said Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian National Committee of America, one of the two Armenian lobby groups.
"I think it's outrageous that the Clinton administration has bowed to these threats from Turkey. ... It sets a very dangerous precedent," said Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.
For decades, Turkey has opposed efforts to portray the suffering of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Armenians inhabited areas of eastern Anatolia for thousands of years, but now only a handful of Armenians live in the cities and towns of the region, such as Van, Kars or Diyarbekir.
Turkey has pursued a negationist strategy to counter Armenian demands for genocide recognition. For example, Ankara says 300,000 Armenians died between 1915-23, while Armenian sources and independent scholars put the figure at 1.5 million. Turkish officials also say tens of thousands of Turks also were victims of atrocities, and a year ago, Turkey erected a monument in memory of Muslims massacred by Armenians during the Great War, located in Igdir, close to the Armenian border. In addition, Ankara sponsors a number of Middle Eastern chairs at American universities, in part out of a desire to influence the genocide debate in academic circles.
Turkey's effort to promote its point of view has met with success. Nevertheless, recent trends indicate the balance of forces may be changing. The point of view advocated by Armenians has gained broader consideration in recent years.
Part of this change can be attributed to Armenian government policy. Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, sought to improve relations with Ankara, and thus tended to downplay differences with Ankara on the genocide issue. However, incumbent President Robert Kocharyan has established genocide recognition as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Meanwhile, the Armenian community in America has created powerful and determined lobby groups. Some American scholars and intellectuals also have joined Armenian activists for the recognition of the Armenian genocide.
According to a variety of sources, the congressional decision to cancel the resolution vote appears to have strengthened the resolve of Armenian Diaspora communities to continue their struggle for the recognition of the 1915 genocide. Whether in the United States, France, Iran or Lebanon, the 1915 genocide is the uniting factor of the Armenian identity, and recognition of the suffering endured by Armenians tops the political agenda of Diaspora organizations.
The Turkish reaction may appear exaggerated, given that the resolution was non-binding and largely symbolic in nature. It would not have gone to the Senate or to President Clinton for approval. Critics of the Turkish position suggest that Turkish politicians, political scientists, and editorialists -- in voicing the negationist view of wanting to draw a line over history, and focus exclusively on the future -- are demonstrating their own insecurity. It may be that they are afraid that passage of even a non-binding resolution would open a Pandora's box.
Some observers say the House debate on the resolution may have a positive impact on Turkey itself by promoting greater awareness of the genocide issue. In general, a debate on the genocide issue has been lacking from the Turkish public discourse. As the resolution was pending in the US House, however, hundreds of articles and editorialists examined the Armenian genocide.
Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, in commenting on the genocide issue, has urged: "Leave history to historians." At the same time, former Turkish ambassador to Washington, Sukru Elekdag, said: "opening our archives to researchers is extremely critical to refutation of allegations."
But increasingly Turkish historians are critical of the official propaganda, and propose interpretations that are not in line with the official view. This debate concerns the democratization of Turkey. An exploration of what happened not only to the Armenian, but also Greek, Assyrian and Yezidi Kurdish minorities of Ottoman Empire is connected to the issue of free speech in contemporary Turkey. Now that the White House intervened to stop the genocide resolution in the House of Representatives, the main question that remains is: will the debate on the genocide issue continue far from Washington?
Vicken Cheterian is a freelance journalist, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian political affairs.