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The Armenian Genocide Resolution's Real-World Impact
Emil Sanamyan | 08 Apr 2009
World Politics Review


Pres. Obama raises Armenian issues in a speech to Turkish parliament

Recurring efforts by Armenian-Americans to secure official U.S. condemnation of the Armenian genocide have often been portrayed by opponents as "counterproductive" to U.S.-Turkey, as well as Turkey-Armenia, relations. But the campaign to pass a non-binding congressional resolution has actually helped focus these relations by catalyzing Armenian-Turkish dialogue, advancing democratic debate inside Turkey and, perhaps most counterintuitively, helping navigate the U.S.-Turkish partnership through a troubled stretch.

An Ancient Relationship

Separated by religion and language, for almost a thousand years Armenians and Turks shared one homeland -- a large area known alternately as Eastern Turkey and Western Armenia. It was never a harmonious arrangement. Rather, Ottoman Turks, as overlords, merely tolerated Armenians as a lower caste, so long as they did not threaten the prevailing order.

When Armenians began to demand more equal rights, Ottomans responded with increasingly bloody crackdowns. In 1915, that process culminated in a complete removal of Armenians from their homeland and more than a million deaths.

It is that legacy that lies at the core of today's acrimony.

Armenians seek condemnation of how their ancestors were treated. Many Turks view any such remorse as a concession that could lead to demands of financial and even territorial restitution.

But lobbying campaigns in the U.S. and elsewhere are merely one aspect of this tug-of-war. The other is Turkey's policy towards present-day Armenia: For the past two decades, Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic ties or to open the land border with Armenia.

That policy, born out of efforts to support Azerbaijan in its territorial dispute with Armenia over the breakaway province of Karabakh, has long become a liability for Ankara. Not only has the embargo failed to achieve Armenian compromises, it has emerged as an irritant in relations with the European Union and U.S. Still, owing more to policy inertia more than anything else, it remains in place.

Enter the Armenian genocide resolution.

Every time that recognition efforts in U.S. have intensified, Turkey has launched a fresh round of diplomacy with Armenia. This was the case in 2000 and again in 2004. Most strikingly, it has been the case since the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, who has been more vocal on the Armenian genocide than any of his predecessors.

While Turkey's diplomatic initiatives are intended primarily to stall the embarrassing resolution by painting it as "counterproductive to fruitful negotiations," they also have a secondary effect of rekindling Armenian-Turkish dialogue. That helps smooth tensions and should help to eventually normalize relations.

A Rekindled Debate

The proposed resolutions have had an even more striking impact inside Turkey itself.

A Turkish parliamentarian told a Washington audience in 2007 that, if adopted, a genocide resolution would be headline news for every Turk throughout the country, including shepherds in the remotest mountain pastures.

To understand how a non-binding congressional resolution might have such an exaggerated importance, look no further than the Turkish government. For decades, Ankara has made the issue a foreign policy fetish. The determination to oppose the resolution at any cost has helped publicize what otherwise might have remained an obscure chapter of history, both abroad and in Turkey.

Until relatively recently, many Turks were simply unaware of the Armenian massacres. The issue was left out of school books and largely forgotten.

Enter the Armenian genocide resolution.

The battle over the non-binding resolution brought history back to life in a contemporary Turkey torn between its nationalist, fundamentalist and progressive urges.

Over the last decade, the issue of the Armenian genocide has become a focal point of public debate. Clumsy attempts by the nationalist establishment to ban public discussion of the Armenian genocide have led to a series of lawsuits against journalists and writers, leading to even more publicity.

When a Turkish-Armenian editor who spoke openly about the genocide was killed by nationalists, the outpouring of outrage -- tens of thousands of Turks chanting in the funeral procession, "We are all Armenians" -- was unprecedented and revealed a strong, if often invisible, desire for change.

These days, Turkish television programs regularly host intellectuals arguing about details of 90-year-old history: how many Armenians died, and why, and what should be done about it today.

The genocide resolutions and Turkish government's determination to fight them has rescued this history from obscurity.

A Flailing Alliance

Following Turkey's opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S.-Turkish alliance had become dysfunctional, with the two NATO allies' forces coming close to a direct confrontation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Among the issues exacerbating relations was Turkey's ongoing battle against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) based in Northern Iraq. While the U.S. had designated the PKK a terrorist group, it had done little to support Turkey in its campaign against the guerilla movement.

Enter the Armenian genocide resolution.

In 2007, the Bush administration worked closely with Turkey and associated interest groups to prevent the genocide resolution from being voted on in the House of Representatives, with President George W. Bush going so far as to personally lobby members of Congress.

The "war on the non-binding resolution" restored a level of trust between Washington and Ankara in ways that the "war on terror" could not.

The Turks began to coordinate their operations in northern Iraq with the U.S., which furnished actionable intelligence on PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. And the Turkish military resumed its orders of U.S.-made weaponry.

History with a Future

On his visit to Turkey this week, President Obama did not use the term genocide. But with a non-binding resolution on Armenian genocide just re-introduced in the House of Representatives, he also confronted the question of Turkish-Armenian relations head on.

At a press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, he implicitly leveraged his position on genocide, which "has not changed," to a positive outcome of Armenia-Turkey talks, "very quickly, very soon."

Significantly, in the same speech to the Turkish parliament in which he outlined a broad blueprint for future U.S.-Turkish engagement, Obama spoke of the need for "each nation to work through its past" and for Turkey to address its Armenian legacy.

Emil Sanamyan is Washington editor and bureau chief for the Armenian Reporter.

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