Until this week, former US president Ronald Reagan was the only US president to refer to what happened to Armenians living in the former Ottoman Empire in 1915 as “genocide”.
But even then it was not part of a statement on the issue. Instead, the reference was made in 1981 while remembering victims of the Holocaust in Europe. “Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it, and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples, the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten,” Reagan said.
In fact, five successive US presidents have failed to do what US President Joe Biden did on Saturday in recognising the Armenian Genocide which took place during World War I. Although an apparently simple action, it has seemed to be too bold for previous US presidents, who, having been elected to the White House, have then reneged on using the term “genocide” to describe what the Armenians suffered at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915, probably out of fears of a backlash from Turkey.
Former US presidents always found other terms, like “Medz Yeghern,” an Armenian term translating as the “great crime,” or “massacres,” or “tragedy”. Diaspora Armenians lived through moments of hope with every new US president, only to be disappointed every year on 24 April, the day commemorating the Armenian Genocide.
However, this year’s statement by Biden read that “each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian Genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring.”
In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s first remark after Biden’s statement was that “what unites us, Turks and Armenians, is not our mutual interests, but our close association with the state, its values and ideals.”
Then, on Monday evening, he gave a speech before the Turkish parliament in which he said that 24 April was the day of the “arrest of leaders of the Armenian armed groups” by the Ottomans during World War I, something he had never said before despite his continuous denials of the terrible acts meted out to the Armenians.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the Turkish government blames the Armenians for committing massacres against Muslims, rewriting history all over again. In his speech on 26 April, Erdogan claimed that during World War I so-called Armenian ‘gangs’ massacred not only Turks and Kurds, but also Greeks, Jews and Circassians. He said that all the victims were civilians and were defenceless women, children and the elderly.”
But “all this is total projection. Honest historians have widely documented that those crimes were committed by Ottoman Turkey against its victims, who were mainly Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Yazidis and other non-Muslims. There is no debate over these historical realities,” Bulut said.
In his speech this week, Erdogan also claimed that today’s Armenia is located on Islamic land that used to have an over 80 per cent Muslim population 100 years ago.
“This is reminiscent of what Erdogan said during the ‘victory parade’ in December last year in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, following Azerbaijan’s genocidal invasion of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh),” Bulut commented.
She added that Erdogan had also delivered a speech there in which he had praised Enver Pasha, one of the planners of Ottoman Turkey’s 1914-1923 Christian genocide. “He referred to the 1918 Islamic Army of the Caucasus created by Enver Pasha and led by the Ottoman commander Nuri Pasha. The Islamic Army of the Caucasus was responsible for massacres aiming to eliminate the non-Muslim population of Baku, who were mainly Armenians,” Bulut said.
All this was part of the established narrative of the Turkish regime concerning the Armenian Genocide, she told the Weekly. “Unfortunately, the political opposition in Turkey, except for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), fully supports this narrative and even criticises Erdogan for what they see as his government’s ‘diplomatic failure’ to prevent the US recognition of the genocide,” Bulut said.
“The Turkish government not only denies the genocide but also tries to portray the victims as the perpetrators. Thus, it is threatening the lives of Armenians in Turkey and in modern Armenia.”
In his speech on Monday, Erdogan called on Biden to reverse his declaration that the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the former Ottoman Empire constituted genocide. “If you say genocide, then you need to look at yourselves in the mirror and make an evaluation. The Native Americans, I don’t even need to mention them, what happened to them is clear,” he said, referring to the treatment of the Native Americans by European settlers in the United States.
“You cannot pin the genocide accusation on the Turkish people,” Erdogan said.
Relations between Washington and Ankara are already strained on several issues. “Turkey has been in a difficult situation in the region; it has been isolated, and its economy is doing very badly. It has problems with the Russians as well. I do not see any way out for Erdogan, as we saw in his remarks on Monday,” editor of the Ahval News site Ilhan Tanir told the Weekly.
“Obviously, Erdogan is keen to tread a fine line in his relations with the Americans, and Washington is very well aware of that. Since Turkey’s economy is deteriorating, it cannot afford to get in a fight with the US government because such tensions would send the foreign-exchange rate through the roof, and Turkey’s foreign-exchange reserves have already been depleted by $60 billion,” Tanir said.
In that same speech Erdogan said he was “looking forward” to seeing Biden in June during the NATO summit “to open the door to a new period in ties and to discuss all disputes.” But Tanir thinks that even if Erdogan tries to think things through more effectively, there are still many issues between the two countries.
“I don’t think this is the first time we will see such a crisis [between the US and Turkey]. We will see more issues regarding the Syrian Kurds, more human rights issues and more problems between Ankara and Washington.”
In reaction to the White House statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador to Ankara David Satterfield.
For American-Armenians, Biden’s recognition of the genocide means a lot and is considered a special victory for the large community in the US, as the country was an important refuge for thousands of genocide survivors. For decades, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has struggled for the cause, and its perseverance and dedication has finally made the recognition come true.
“The Armenian Genocide recognition holds great meaning in terms of remembrance, but it is, at its heart, about justice that was deserved and the security required for the survival of the Armenian nation, a landlocked, blockaded, genocide-survivor state,” ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian told the Weekly.
Another question is whether the recognition will serve the future of Armenia, especially as the country suffered a huge humanitarian disaster including the displacement of over 100,000 people from their homes during the recent war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Hamparian thinks Biden’s recognition will have an impact in the wake of Turkish and Azerbaijani attacks against Armenia and Karabakh.
“There is the ongoing Azerbaijani imprisonment of over 200 Armenian POWs, and there are [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev’s threats of renewed Azerbaijani attacks on southern Armenia made as recently as this week. So, Biden’s recognition must translate into a fundamental reset in US policy towards the region, one which ensures the security of Armenia and Artsakh and lays the groundwork for a durable peace based upon a just resolution of the Armenian Genocide,” Hamparian said.
Asked if Biden sees Erdogan as a threat, the Washington based editor said that “Biden sees that Erdogan’s government needs to be contained and pushed back, and, when speaking about democratic values, the Biden administration definitely sees Erdogan as a threat to democratic values in the region and around the world. I think the Biden administration will do everything it can to push him back, and we will see how this will make an impact within Turkey itself, as democratic institutions are failing inside the country.”
With Biden’s statement on the genocide, it is important that future US presidents do not backpeddle on recognising the Ottoman massacres of the Armenians as genocide.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has called for the opening of his country’s national archives and the formation of a joint historical committee to investigate Biden’s remarks about the genocide.
According to Diaspora Armenians, still reacting on social media to Biden’s recognition, the fight is not yet over. The next stage should be to demand reparations from Turkey, many of them state.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly