Monday, February 2, 2009

Top three stories of 2008: Obama, Ossetia and legacy of genocide

This was first published in January 3, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Washington Briefing: 2008 Review
by Emil Sanamyan

With most of the world’s newsmakers enjoying the holidays with their families, this week’s Briefing looks back at three major stories covered in 2008.

Barack Obama

The meteoric rise of the junior senator from Illinois, elected just four years earlier, to President-elect of the United States became the biggest news event of 2008.

Barack Obama ran on a platform of changing the United States and moving away from policies of the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, work to restore U.S. image abroad, and keep America prosperous amid the global economic downturn.

Mr. Obama also promised to properly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and step up U.S. support for Armenia, including Karabakh's right to self-determination.

By all available accounts, Armenian-American campaigning and votes went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama and against his Republican opponent.

The Bush Administration's record on these issues has been a checkered one.

On the Genocide, while President Bush issued annual April 24 messages commemorating Armenian losses, in deference to Turkey he refused to use the term genocide. In 2007 Mr. Bush actively lobbied against a congressional resolution on the matter. His predecessor President Bill Clinton did something similar, albeit less publicly, in 2000.

Another policy that began under the Clinton administration and largely continued under Mr. Bush was the U.S. approach to address the Karabakh conflict in a way that affirmed the central fact on the ground: Karabakh's effective reunification with Armenia.

At the same time, the United States spent billions of dollars to buy oil from Azerbaijan and offered only occasional words of caution to Azerbaijani government over its preparations for and relentless threats of new war against Armenia.

And on aid to Armenia, the Bush administration continued to cut the overall allocations. While Armenia was found eligible for the Millennium Challenge Assistance program, and a compact was signed, only a fraction of the allocated funds was approved for release by yearend on the pretext of irregularities in Armenia's political process.

Unlike the governments of neighboring Georgia and Turkey, the Armenian government has not yet publicly reached out to President-elect Obama to raise any of these issues.

Judging by Mr. Obama's picks for national security positions and initial foreign policy gestures in recent weeks, there is little indication of a radical departure from many of the Bush administration's policies.

This week, Israel's air campaign in Gaza was condemned by most of the world, with Turkish leaders in particular condemning Israel for "crimes against humanity."

The European Union called the attacks that killed more than 300 Gazans "unacceptable" and cause for "grave concern."

In the United States, President Bush put the blame squarely on the Islamist political party that forms Gaza's government and supported Israel's right to "defend itself." One Israeli so far has died in the campaign.

Congressional Democrats took similar positions. And president-elect Obama has so far refused to take a position, deferring to the president still in office.

The Ossetia war

Russian tanks in Ossetia last August. AFP photo.

In 2008, Mr. Obama became Time magazine's Person of the Year, succeeding Vladimir Putin, who was that person in 2007. And although in 2008 he was succeeded as president by former aide Dmitry Medvedev, Mr. Putin became Russia's prime minister and remained its undisputed leader.

In August, as Georgia attempted to overrun its former province of South Ossetia - which has been outside Tbilisi's control since the 1991-92 war as a de-facto Russian protectorate - it was Mr. Putin who first announced and then oversaw the implementation of a devastating Russian response.

The official reasons for Russian intervention were humanitarian: Georgia launched an indiscriminate bombing campaign against South Ossetian civilians, many of them Russian citizens, and targeted 500 Russian peacekeepers deployed there.

But Georgia's attack against Ossetia also provided a useful opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its determination to defending its interests in the Caucasus, and broadly in Europe, and the unwillingness of the United States to challenge Russia militarily so close to Russian borders, indicating a shift in the perceived regional balance.

Militarily, Russia proved capable of routing a U.S.-trained and equipped military with relative ease. Its air force, although much inferior to its American counterpart, was able to effectively target Georgia's military infrastructure, causing relatively little civilian damage.

Diplomatically, Russia unleashed an unprecedented public relations campaign - both domestically and internationally - to accompany its military actions much as the United States did before invading Iraq.

The war affected Armenia in two major ways.

On the one hand, it noticeably tamed Azerbaijan's appetite for a military escalation over Karabakh - at least in the foreseeable future. This was reflected in a joint declaration signed by the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, that pledged a political solution to the conflict, and a change in the Azerbaijani posture along the Line of Contact with Armenian forces.

But a nearly complete disruption in Russian-Georgian relations has also hit Armenia's already restricted trade routes and made Georgia more dependent on Azerbaijan and Turkey.

In Georgia, ongoing political recriminations over the war may lead to a leadership change in 2009. That could be accompanied by more instability but might also begin to clear the air in Russian-Georgian relations.

But there is a silver lining to this situation as well. The de facto Georgian bulwark against Russia helps moderate the exercise of Moscow's influence over Armenia, leaving its leadership with more room for maneuver than it could otherwise have.

As in the past, Armenia continues to perform a difficult balancing act between its strategic Russian ally, its most important neighbor Georgia, as well as the European Union and the United States, which have promised continued economic support to Georgia and the region.

The Armenian Genocide

President Abdullah Gül with President Serge Sargsian in Yerevan, September 6. Photolure.

It has been more than 90 years since the Armenian Genocide, but its unresolved legacy remains newsworthy. The Genocide remains the Armenian subject most frequently discussed by the world, even more so than Armenia's contemporary security and development challenges.

This interest appears to be driven by three sets of factors: increased awareness of contemporary genocidal crises such as those in Rwanda and Sudan; the Armenian advocacy for acknowledgement and amends; and the Turkish government's denial campaign.

In 2007, the Turkish public's reaction to assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and debates over congressional resolution were the main news stories on the subject.

In 2008, Armenia's renewed effort to reach out to Turkey, and Turkish intellectuals' "I apologize" petition, which led to passionate debates on the Genocide inside Turkey, both generated media interest.

Turkish leaders offered mixed and sometimes contradictory remarks on Armenian issues.

Early in the year, they were quick to congratulate Armenia's new president, Serge Sargsian, on his election victory in February.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gül accepted Mr. Sargsian's invitation and in September made the first-ever visit by a Turkish president to Armenia. Turkish officials have since reiterated their desire to normalize relations with Armenia, but they also stuck to Turkey's pre-conditions: an end to the campaign for recognition of the genocide foremost among them.

On a visit to the United States in November, Turkey's top leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized Armenian-Americans' advocacy on the issue as "cheap political lobbying," and in December he condemned the apology petition. Earlier in the year he branded Mr. Obama an "amateur" for his pledge to recognize the Genocide.

These developments were taking place in the context of the Turkish secular nationalist establishment's attempts to judicially ban and effectively unseat Mr. Erdogan's ruling political party - efforts that continued through mid-summer - and the government's case against about 100 nationalist figures who were charged with an attempted coup - the so-called Ergenekon case that continued at yearend.

Meanwhile, Turkish foreign policy shifted its emphasis away from the country's pro-Western orientation and efforts to win a European Union membership.

Turkey's positions have become increasingly distant from those of the United States and closer to those of Russia and the Islamic world.

Ankara also successfully completed a multiyear campaign to win international support for a two-year United Nations Security Council seat.

Last May, when the first indications of newly elected President Sargsian's initiative on Turkey became known, the Armenian Reporter conducted a survey among Armenia experts, asking them, "In the next year or two, do you expect relations between Armenia and Turkey to improve, deteriorate, or remain unchanged?"

Nearly three-fourths of those who responded said they expected the relations to remain unchanged. And in terms of actual policies - Turkey's refusal to establish diplomatic relations, open its border with Armenia and an end to genocide denial - they were accurate so far.

Nevertheless, shifts in Turkey's rhetoric on Armenia were sufficient to make Azerbaijan nervous. Turkey's defection from Azerbaijan's campaign to pressure Armenia would spell an effective end to the efforts to alter the facts on the ground in the Karabakh conflict.

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