Armenia Hails Genocide Vote

As Armenians celebrate following a US Congressional vote, their kinsmen in Turkey brace themselves for a rise in nationalist sentiment.

Armenia Hails Genocide Vote

As Armenians celebrate following a US Congressional vote, their kinsmen in Turkey brace themselves for a rise in nationalist sentiment.

Politicians in Armenia have welcomed a vote by a US Congressional committee recognising the mass killings of Armenians in early 20th century Ottoman Turkey as genocide.

Despite Turkey’s anger over the move, Armenian politicians and commentators say they do not expect major repercussions, if only because relations between the two states are tenuous.

Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee passed the non-binding “Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution” on October 10, by 27 votes to 21 votes. The resolution is now set to go forward to Congress itself.

The resolution says that genocide took place between 1915 and 1923, and involved the killing of 1.5 million Armenians and the expulsion of half a million more from the east of the Ottoman Empire.

The vote caused excitement in Armenia. Alina, 26, who lives in Yerevan, said she received numerous text messages and emails after the news broke. “We all congratulated each other,” she said.

Armenian president Robert Kocharian, who was visiting Brussels when the vote took place, hailed the outcome as a triumph for Armenians worldwide.

On the question of the implications for Armenia’s relations with Turkey, he said, “Recognition of a historic injustice cannot damage bilateral relations.”

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier warned that if the resolution went through, it would damage his country’s relations not only with the United States but with Armenia as well.

“Those who expect any positive moves from Turkey will be left alone with their problems,” said Erdogan. “They will pay for their hostility towards a country as important as Turkey.”

Egemen Bagis, a foreign policy adviser to Erdogan, was more specific, accusing Armenian officials for lobbying Congress.

"Turkey must impose sanctions against Armenia,” he told CNN-Turk television. “Turkey has already drawn up a list of what it will do and when it will do it, and the prime minister has already given the necessary orders."

Lobbying for recognition of the genocide has been at the top of Armenia’s foreign policy agenda for the past decade. A “national security strategy” adopted in February 2007 says that achieving universal recognition and condemnation of the genocide, including by Turkey, is seen “not only as the restoration of historical justice, but also as a way of improving the mutual confidence in the region and of preventing such crimes in future”.

Turkey did not establish diplomatic relations with Armenia when it became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their common border remained open until April 1993, when the Turks closed it after Armenian forces occupied the Kelbajar region adjacent to Nagorny Karabakh. This was at the height of the Karabakh war, in which Turkey was sympathetic to Azerbaijan.

Yet despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, relations with Turkey are still far better than with Azerbaijan. Armenian nationals are free to enter Turkey, simply buying a visa at the border. There are two direct flights a week between Istanbul and Yerevan.

Turkey has a 70,000-strong Armenian population of its own, concentrated largely in Istanbul. But some reports suggest that there are also about 30,000 Armenian nationals living and working in Turkey.

International media reported last week that some of those Armenians were suffering. The Irish Times reported that 100 illegal migrants from Armenia had been detained in Turkey and would be deported to Armenia. “The deportation is seen as revenge for the genocide resolution,” the newspaper said.

The only Armenian diplomat in Turkey, Karen Mirzoyan, who represents his country at the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation, confirmed the reports. “I have unofficial data to hand that confirm the facts,” he told Radio Liberty. “I can’t provide more accurate information, because these issues are beyond my competence.”

In Yerevan, however, foreign ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian said that official information obtained from the Turkish authorities indicated that of the 542 foreigners detained recently for illegal residence, only one was an Armenian citizen.

Ara Gochunian, editor of the Istanbul-based Armenian daily Zhamanak, told IWPR by telephone that Turkish police were taking tougher action against illegal immigrants of any ethnicity.

“There are Armenians among those detained,” he said. “But they were detained not because they are Armenians, but because they are illegal residents and had problems with their visas.”

In contrast to most of the diaspora, the Armenian community in Istanbul opposed the US Congressional resolution, and the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Mesrop Mutafian, went to the US to press for the resolution not to go through.

“We will try to prevent the resolution from being passed by the US House of Representatives,” the Turkish news agency Anadolu cited him as saying. “We are concerned that this resolution may impact on the lives of Armenian citizens in Turkey.”

Robert Hattechian, editor of the Istanbul-based Armenian daily Marmara, recalled that strong anti-Armenian sentiment manifested itself in Turkey after the murder of the well-known journalist Hrant Dink in January. He fears the US resolution will fuel Turkish nationalism.

“Turkey’s spite is now levelled against the Armenian diaspora,” Hattechian said by telephone from Istanbul.

Citing Prime Minister Erdogan’s approval of Patriarch Mesrop’s lobbying effort, Hattechian noted, “The Armenian community in Turkey has avoided making moves that might cast doubt over its loyalty.”

On October 11, a court in Istanbul court handed out one-year suspended sentences to Arat Dink, son of the murdered journalist and senior editor with the Agos newspaper, and editor Sarkis Serobian for republishing an interview Hrant Dink gave last year about the 1915 mass killings of Armenians. Sentence was passed just a few hours after the US resolution went through.

In Armenia, the view among experts seems to be that relations with Turkey are unlikely to deteriorate drastically, partly because Ankara cannot afford to make things worse than they are now.

“The border is closed, there are no diplomatic ties, and trade is carried out through third countries,” said political analyst Alexander Iskandarian. “The resolution will be forgotten in a few months’ time. But it is not just a resolution, it’s a process of recognising the genocide, it’s a train that has started moving.”

He predicted, “If Turkey continues on the path it’s on now, in other words seeking membership of the western community, then in five, ten or 15 years it will inevitably find itself having to improve its relationship with Armenia.”

Haik Demoyan, the director of Yerevan’s Genocide Museum Institute, agreed, telling Armenian Public Radio that, “when a country closes its border with its neighbour, imposes a blockade on it and severs diplomatic ties, the only thing worse that one can imagine happening is a war. I don’t think Turkey will dare complicate relations further.”

Vahan Hovhannissian, the deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament and one of the leaders of the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, argued that recognition of the genocide might actually serve to unblock relations with Turkey.

“The argument that recognition of the Armenian genocide is going to damage efforts to normalise Armenian-Turkish relations is completely wrong,” he said. “On the contrary, so long as the genocide remains unrecognised at an international level, Turkey will not have an interest in improving relations with Armenia and the Armenians.”

Tatul Hakobian is a commentator for the Public Radio of Armenia and the New-York-based weekly newspaper Armenian Reporter.

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