Monday, May 18, 2009

President Obama, in Turkey, raises Armenian issues

Avoids the word genocide
Asks Turkey to open Armenia border
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Friday April 10, 2009

President Obama meets with, from left, Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandian, Swiss foreign minister (and mediator) Micheline Calmy-Rey, Turkish undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Ertugul Apakan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at a reception in Istanbul on April 6. The president met with the foreign ministers to commend them on “recent progress” toward the normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations and urged them to complete a bilateral agreement. Pete Souza / White House

Washington, - In a first for a U.S. president, Barack Obama used his visit to Ankara to publicly speak of the need for Turkey to address its past and improve its present relations with Armenia.

But citing reports of an impending breakthrough in talks between Armenia and Turkey, Mr. Obama effectively sidestepped his pre-election promise to clearly recognize the destruction of Ottoman Armenians as genocide. Mr. Obama also encouraged Turkish and Armenian officials "to complete an agreement" in an expeditious manner.

Armenian agenda without the G word

In his April 6 speech at Turkey's Grand National Assembly and in a joint press conference with Turkish president Abdullah Gül earlier the same day, Mr. Obama became the first U.S. president to publicly air some Armenian-American concerns on a visit to Turkey. (See transcripts.)

Addressing the parliament, Mr. Obama recalled America's own treatment of Native Americans and Blacks, and urged Turks to address the "terrible events of 1915" in a way that is "honest, open, and constructive." Extolling the benefits of opening the border with Armenia - which was closed and is kept closed by Turkey - he said the United States "strongly supports normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia." He also invited Turkey to play a "constructive role" in the Karabakh peace process.

At the press conference, the subject was formally prompted by Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times correspondent Christi Parsons, who referred to Mr. Obama's comments on the Armenian Genocide as a senator and his pre-election pledges to recognize the Genocide as president. Ms. Parsons asked whether the president still held the same views and whether he asked Mr. Gül to recognize the Genocide.

Mr. Obama responded that he had not changed his views, which are "on the record." But he then turned to the subject of talks between Armenia and Turkey that could "bear fruit very quickly very soon" and which, he said, he did not want to "tilt" in favor of either side, presumably by speaking more candidly.

In his follow-up, Mr. Gül outlined some of the points of the official Turkish position, denying the Armenian Genocide, and seeking to shift it from the realm of law and politics to the realm of academic history.

The Turkish president did not sound as upbeat as Mr. Obama about the prospect of a breakthrough in talks with Armenia, noting only that he "would like to see a good resolution of these discussions," and adding, "we have a lot of work" to do, including resolving "issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan."

Talks with Armenia: PR campaign or real progress?

Turkish officials and their supporters have offered contradictory opinions on the status of talks with Armenia and whether they might be nearing some kind of a turning point.

On the eve of Mr. Obama's visit, a media blitz sought to play up progress in talks. Leaks by anonymous, but presumably Turkish and some U.S. officials to the Wall Street Journal even suggested April 16 as a day when an Armenian-Turkish agreement could be signed. The story was picked up by the Washington Times, Financial Times, and others.

Members of the congressional Turkey caucus spun the same story line, urging Mr. Obama to encourage Armenian and Turkish leaders to reach an agreement.

But speaking in London on April 3, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would not concede that the Ottoman treatment of Armenians was genocide and again linked the establishment of relations with Armenia to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The next day Mr. Gül dismissed the Wall Street Journal report of the April 16 date as "false."

In a comment for the media late Sunday night, Armenia's Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian stressed that there is a "mutual understanding" between Armenia and Turkey that normalization can have no preconditions, that there would be no linkages to the Genocide or Karabakh, and that statements to the contrary "may be regarded as an attempt to impede the progress reached in the negotiations."

Mr. Nalbandian then postponed by 24 hours his departure for Istanbul, where he was to attend the Alliance of Civilizations meeting. Upon arrival in the evening of April 6, he had a brief conversation with Mr. Obama and then a four-way meeting that included the foreign ministers of Turkey and Switzerland, which has recently hosted talks between Armenian and Turkish officials.

An unnamed but senior U.S. official told Reuters that Mr. Obama "urged [Armenian and Turkish ministers] to complete an agreement with dispatch."

In the meantime, the Azerbaijani leadership expressed public distress over Armenian-Turkish talks and President Ilham Aliyev refused to attend the Istanbul conference - even after being promised a meeting with Mr. Obama, Turkish media reported.

On April 7, Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan again spoke of progress made in talks, but a report carried by the Anatolia news agency referred to no timeline. In a comment that could be seen as directed to the United States, Mr. Babacan suggested that "third countries should act sensitively during this ongoing process."

Mixed community reaction

Adding to the week's confusion were the substantially different interpretations of Mr. Obama's remarks offered by Armenian-American advocacy groups.

Aram Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) said in a statement, "President Obama missed a valuable opportunity to honor his public pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide." At the same time, he welcomed as "a step in the right direction" Mr. Obama's "willingness to raise his commitment to recognizing the Armenian Genocide, even indirectly."

In a comment for the Armenian Reporter, Ross Vartian of the U.S.-Armenia Public Affairs Committee (USAPAC) said, "President Obama made it clear that his well-known views on the Armenian Genocide have not changed and that Turkey needed to face its history. Yet he could have and should have said the words ‘Armenian Genocide' at a time and place perfect for doing so."

"President Obama stands by his pledge regarding affirmation of the Armenian genocide," ran the headline of the Armenian Assembly of America statement released to the media. Unlike the ANCA, the Assembly offered no criticism, pointing instead to Mr. Obama's comment that he hasn't changed his view.

The Assembly's Bryan Ardouny noted, "For the first time, a U.S. President has delivered a direct message to Turkish officials in their own country that he stands behind his steadfast support and strong record of affirmation of the Armenian Genocide."

The Assembly statement sidestepped the fact that Mr. Obama chose to sidestep the word genocide.

Incidentally, on April 6 the Hawaii State House of Representatives passed a measure condemning the Armenian Genocide. Mr. Obama's home state became the 42nd U.S. state to recognize the Genocide.

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