A US Embassy statement in late October doesn’t seem to have defused tensions in Armenia over a controversial YouTube video clip that shows US Vice-President Joe Biden claiming that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan asked him not to push the issue of genocide recognition with Turkey.
In the clip, allegedly recorded before a 2009 speech by US President Barack Obama on the 94th anniversary of the 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turkey, Biden tells a representative of the Armenian diaspora that Sargsyan had asked him not to force the issue of genocide recognition with Turkey while Armenia’s negotiations with Ankara about diplomatic reconciliation were underway. Talks between Turkey and Armenia came to a standstill earlier this year amidst heated disputes over mutual grievances, including demands from many Armenians that Turkey recognize the 1915 slaughter as genocide.
In an October 30 statement, the US Embassy in Yerevan asserted that President Sargsyan did not address Vice-President Biden about President Obama’s statement for Armenian Remembrance Day, which commemorates the massacre, or seek a delay in consideration of a congressional resolution that would have recognized the event as genocide. “Instead, the discussions between Vice President Biden and President Sarkisian that were recently referenced . . . were about the need to take immediate steps to improve Armenian-Turkish relations,” the statement reads. “The two leaders agreed that there should be no preconditions to normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey.”
The statement hit many Armenian analysts as a weak attempt to use diplomacy to smooth over an awkward situation. “I don’t think the US vice-president would say those words without having any grounds,” commented Manvel Sargsian, a political scientist at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a think-tank run by opposition Heritage Party founder Raffi Hovannisian. “The United States understood pretty well that this issue would provoke a huge scandal, if it entered the domestic [Armenian] arena, so they decided to escape it. Maybe it was Armenia that addressed them with such a request. Anyway, the situation still remains unclear.”
A senior member of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, one of the most outspoken Armenian political parties on genocide recognition, claims that the embassy statement was an attempt “to avoid the problem.”
“Yet they could not totally escape it, and had to provide some explanations saying it was not true, in a … diplomatic way,” claimed Kiro Manoian, head of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Bureau’s Hay Dat (Armenian Cause) and Political Affairs Office. “But this does not solve the problem at all.”
The controversy only underlines that, despite earlier pledges to pursue reconciliation with Turkey without conditions, the issue of genocide recognition exists as a criterion for Yerevan in order to normalize relations with Ankara, commented independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian. “It does not really matter now who phoned whom. The fact is, the genocide issue was taken as a precondition; in other words, the Armenian side made a miscalculation in this process,” said Bozoian, in reference to the talks with Turkey. “The video confirms that the genocide issue has received a serious blow.”
The government and Sargsyan’s governing Republican Party of Armenia have dismissed claims that the president would ever urge a go-slow approach on genocide recognition. Republican Party of Armenia spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov called the video “absurd.” Sargsyan’s office has asserted that the conversation between Biden and the president did not take place, and has promised to “publish the record of the mentioned conversation.” So far, a transcript has not been released.
Vladimir Karapetian, the spokesperson for Armenia’s largest opposition coalition, the Armenian National Congress, contended a joint 2009 statement made by Armenia and Turkey about agreement on a “road map to peace” indicates that Sargsyan’s alleged request to Biden to tread lightly with Turkey on genocide recognition could be “quite likely.”
Representatives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, in turn, have used the scandal to call on President Obama to make amends by recognizing the World War I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turkey as genocide. The adoption this spring of a non-binding resolution on genocide recognition by a US congressional committee stalled in the House of Representatives.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.