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Obama talks Turkey (Updated)

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History has the unfortunate habit of repeating itself as Armenians know only too well. This is especially true when it comes to U.S. presidential elections. Without fail, candidates running for the White House promise to recognize the WWI massacre and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians living in the then Ottoman Empire as genocide only to have them  renege on such campaign promises when in office. 

This time round, however, the large and influential Diaspora lobby in Washington had hoped things would be different with Barack Obama in power, and not least because of the inclusion of activists such as Samantha Power in his transition team. The arrival today of the U.S. president in Turkey, on the other hand, does not bode well. Of course, Armenians shouldn't be surprised. There are other far more pressing matters for Obama to concern himself with. 

To begin with, sending out the right message from secular Turkey to the Islamic world is vital in order to repair the damage caused by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Moreover, the U.S. continues to need Turkey's help in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the August war between Georgia and Russia, Turkey's potential role as a counterbalance to Moscow's influence in the South Caucasus has also become apparent. 

When it comes to Armenia, the issue becomes especially complicated. While many in the Diaspora seek recognition of the genocide if only to punish Turkey as well as validate demands for territorial reparations, Armenia instead desparately wants the border with its historic foe opened. Closed during the height of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenian forces occupied 14 percent of Azerbaijan, Turkey's main ally in the region.

Effectively blockaded by both, most of Armenia's trade presently transits via Georgia and the August war with Russia effectively cut off its main access to the outside world. There are also hopes that normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey will benefit regional stability and contribute to finding a peaceful solution to the long-running Armenian-Azeri conflict. More significantly, perhaps, a historical commission to examine the genocide will also be established.

This reality was not lost on newspapers such as the New York Times.

We have long criticized Turkey for its self-destructive denial of the World War I era mass killing of Armenians. But while Congress is again contemplating a resolution denouncing the genocide, it would do a lot more good for both Armenia and Turkey if it held back. Mr. Obama, who vowed in the presidential campaign to recognize the event as genocide, should also forbear. link

That the massacre and deportation of most of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian population constitutes genocide is hardly disputed, and not least because the events of 1915-17 were used as a case study by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term in 1943. Nevertheless, the precise number of those who perished is still unknown, as are some aspects of the actual events themselves, with some believing that comprehensive study is still necessary

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Photo: Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D) burn the Turkish flag, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

Of course, it is not impossible that Obama will refer to the killings as genocide, but most independent observers consider that to be unlikely. This is especially true given the arrival tomorrow of Armenia's foreign minister in Istanbul to coincide with Obama's visit. Many suspect that the two events and their timing are more than coincidental, especially as April is also the month when Armenians worldwide remember the tragic events of 1915-17.

Meanwhile, although hundreds of thousands of Armenians will continue to visit the Genocide memorial in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on 24 April, it is the Diaspora -- or at least those groups which claim they represent millions of ethnic Armenians living abroad -- who remain most opposed to any rapprochement. Somewhat Ironically, even local traditionally nationalist parties such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnakstutyun (ARF-D) remain relatively silent on the matter.

Others simply consider that Armenia and Turkey might well be on their way to resolving outstanding grievances on their own. Coming to terms with the past matters most in Turkey and not the United States, they argue, and it is that fact alone which is likely to influence Obama's decision on whether to support such efforts rather than risk derailing them. However, along with Obama's endorsement of Turkey's European Union membership bid, it will disappoint many in the Armenian Diaspora. 

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Photo: Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D)  youth protest Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008  



No sooner as most observers believed that Armenia and Turkey were close to establishing diplomatic relations without preconditions, the latest news is that the Armenian foreign ministerchose not to visit Istanbul as originally intended. The reason? Turkish relations with Armenia's other adversary in the region, Azerbaijan.

The Armenian Yerkir Media TV reports that Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, did not get on the Yerevan-Istanbul flight late this evening, after issuing a terse response to announcements made by Turkish President Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that Turkey will not lift its blockade of Armenia unless Armenia fulfils Turkish preconditions regarding the Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabagh issue and the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.


I think that the announcements that put forward preconditions to the establishment of Armenian-Turkish relations can be viewed as an attempt to fail the advances registered during the negotiations," concludes Foreign Minister Nalbandian.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry distributed Minister Nalbandian's response just before the Armavia flight from Yerevan to Istanbul, at 23:06.


Now, announcements by the Turkish Prime Minister and the Turkish President, resetting preconditions to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia and to the lifting of the blockade have actually led the Armenia-Turkey negotiations into a rocky road or maybe even an impasse. link

The announcement comes after Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, threatened last week to cut off gas supplies to Turkey. Whatever the reasons for the surprise move, however, news of what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle to the normalization of ties between Armenia and Turkey puts new pressure on Obama during his visit.

True, Turkey's strategic importance to the U.S. remains as crucial as ever, but if the main argument against passage of a resolution recognizing the genocide in the U.S. Congress, as well as regarding the wording of Obama's 24 April message, was that the two countries were close to resolving their own differences, it now no longer exists.

What will be interesting is whether the sudden change in Turkey's position will be touched upon in any press conference held with the U.S. president and whether he will privately remind Ankara that he can still allow Congress a free hand in deciding whether to pass the genocide resolution or not. As The Economist's Amberin Zaman recently wrote:

[The U.S.] should remind Turkey that the security card has its limits; the longer Turkey and Armenia remain at odds, the more likely it is that the genocide resolution will pass, and with it an opportunity to curb Russian influence and to bring calm and prosperity to the Caucasus." link


Update #2 

The Armenian foreign minister eventually did travel to Turkey and there have been plenty of developments since. See the comments section below for updates.

End Update 


Top Photo: Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008


Onnik Krikorian | April 6, 2009 12:12 AM | Reply

The Independent's Robert Fisk also weighs in on the discussion regarding what U.S. President Barack Obama should do with regards to Armenia, Turkey and the Armenian Genocide.

It's all supposed to be about campaign promises. Didn't Barack Obama promise to deliver an address from a "Muslim capital" in his first 100 days? It's got to be in a safe, moderate country, of course, but where better than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular/Islamist nation of Turkey, whose rulers talk to Syria as well as Israel, Iran as well as Iraq? But when the Obama cavalcade turned up in the heart of the old Ottoman Empire last night, he and all his panjandrums were praying that he did not have to use the "G" word.


But already the administration's soft shoes have been trying to finesse away the pledge. "At this moment," Mike Hammer, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said last month, "our focus is on how, moving forward, the US can help Turkey and Armenia work together to come to terms with the past". That Mr Obama should allow such a statement to be made, along with the usual weasel clichés about "moving forward" and "coming to terms", speaks volumes.


But for Mr Obama, there are more pressing points. US and Turkish officials are already discussing how Ankara can help in a US military withdrawal from Iraq, and Mr Obama desperately wants Turkey to help open up the Muslim world to his government to staunch the massive wounds the Bush administration inflicted. link

Onnik Krikorian | April 6, 2009 12:49 PM | Reply

Despite the decision by the Armenian foreign minister not to visit Turkey late last night, the U.S. president is still pressing for Armenia and Turkey to resolve their own problems. As mentioned in my previous post two months ago, encouraging and supporting the process of rapprochement appears to remain Washington's intent.

ANKARA, Turkey—President Barack Obama says he is not pressing Turkish leaders to acknowledge that their country committed genocide against Armenians during World War I because he does not want to interfere with negotiations on the matter.

Obama said Monday he stood by his 2008 assertion that Ottoman Turks carried out widespread killings of Armenians decades ago. But he said he would not press Turkish leaders to acknowledge that genocide took place because Turks and Armenians are engaged in talks that may bear fruit soon.

Obama said at a news conference in Ankara, "I want to be as encouraging as possible."

Turkish President Abdullah Gul stood next to Obama. He said historians, not politicians, should decide how to label what happened nearly a century ago. link

Meanwhile, other Internet reports refer to Obama " tip-toeing around the issue in very sensitive language."

12:05 - Uncomfortable first question. President Obama says his view on the Armenian genocide, which Turkey disputes the terminology of, is on the record.

"I don't want to focus on my views, but the views of the Turkish people," he says, calling on Turkey to move forward from a "difficult and tragic history". link

No reports so far on any comments about a possible reversal of policy regarding opening the Armenian-Turkish border without resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

Onnik Krikorian | April 6, 2009 2:09 PM | Reply

At time of writing, some updates on Obama's speech on my Twitter: http://twitter.com/onewmphoto. There's a full transcript here, and that part which dealt with Armenia here.

Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. While there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.

We have already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. That is why the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.

It speaks to Turkey’s leadership that you are poised to be the only country in the region to have normal and peaceful relations with all the South Caucusus nations. And to advance that peace, you can play a constructive role in helping to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has continued for far too long. link

Onnik Krikorian | April 6, 2009 7:15 PM | Reply

Following Obama's speech in which he urged Turkey to normalize relations with Armenia, as well as take an active role in resolving the conflict between Yerevan and Baku over Nagorno Karabakh, comes news that the Armenian foreign minister has now departed for Istanbul.

His scheduled visit yesterday was canceled following remarks from the Turkish prime minister stating that relations could only be normalized after resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Aliyev, however, did not appear convinced.

Indeed, Obama's speech seems to indicate that hopes for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey remains possible with one news report quoting the U.S. president as explicitly stating the U.S. would not interfere although it would support the process.

RFE/RL also reports on the possibility of Armenian-Turkish rapprochement and says in a post on its blog that Azerbaijan seeks to derail the process. This is especially true in light of reports speculating over the wording of a long-awaited protocol to perhaps be signed this month by Armenia and Turkey.

Informed analysts have identified as one of the reasons why Ankara has responded positively to repeated overtures over the past two years by Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian frustration that Turkish foreign policy was being held hostage by Azerbaijan's unyielding position with regard to the Karabakh conflict. [...]

On April 6, however, "Hurriyet" reported, quoting unnamed "reliable sources," that the Turkish-Armenian draft protocol contains the wording "sufficient progress on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is required before the opening of the [Turkish-Armenian] border," and that President Aliyev is seeking clarification of what precisely is meant by "sufficient progress."

The Azerbaijani presidential administration told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on April 6 they have no idea what the "Hurriyet" article was referring to. But as of mid-afternoon Baku time on April 6, Aliyev had not left for Istanbul. link

R | April 6, 2009 7:29 PM | Reply

It seems Obama is not forsaking his stand on the Genocide (although he did not use the word).


"Obama stood by his views on mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915, but said he expected a breakthrough in talks between Turkey and Armenia.

"My views are on the record and I have not changed those views," he said, without mentioning the word "genocide." "

Maybe he will surprise everyone on April 24th.

Onnik Krikorian | April 6, 2009 7:47 PM | Reply

R, maybe, but probably not. Unless Turkey backtracks from normalizing ties with Armenia by 24 April, Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will not interfere, but rather support Armenia and Turkey in resolving their own differences. It's quite clear that he has not changed his personal position, but does not seem willing to risk losing a key ally by using the word in an official capacity when there is the chance of the border opening, diplomatic relations being established, and the likelihood of a historical commission being set up.

"…what I want to do is not focus on my views right now but focus on the views of the Turkish and the Armenian people," the president said. "If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage them."

He added that he is not interested in "the United States in any way tilting these negotiations one way or another while they are having useful discussions." link

Of course, it becomes extremely awkward for him if those talks break down. Basically, he is giving Turkey the opportunity to come to terms with its own past and that means much more than any U.S. pronouncement. Let's see.

Onnik Krikorian | April 6, 2009 8:26 PM | Reply

And it would seem that Obama's intent in supporting Armenia and Turkey in their own attempts to normalize relations is becoming more apparent.

U.S. President Barack Obama urged the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia during a meeting on Monday to complete talks aimed at restoring ties between the two neighbours, a U.S. official said.

Ankara and Yerevan are engaged in high-level negotiations to end nearly a century of hostility, including the reopening of the border -- a move which could help shore up stability in the volatile Caucasus.

"On the margins of tonight's Alliance of Civilisations dinner, the president met the foreign ministers of Turkey, Armenia and Switzerland to commend their efforts towards Turkish-Armenian normalisation and to urge them to complete an agreement with dispatch," a senior U.S. official told reporters in Istanbul. link

R | April 6, 2009 10:23 PM | Reply

Christopher Hitchens nails it:


Roy Greenfield | April 7, 2009 9:56 AM | Reply

I would say Obama yesterday in Ankara, came up to
water's edge at least -- "terrible events of 1915"

Okay, that's better than not mentioning it - I think...

He also referred to our U.S. history of ethnically-
driven wrongs, in bringing the Turks along. Pretty
good move Barack - and we've historically found
some positives in airing our dirty laundry. We'll face
it & come away with something cathartic, and that
may have been Obama's point exactly in Ankara.

You have to balance a lot of things as U.S. president,
apparently. When you can take both sides, you do it... ;^)

So he in fact straddled that fence & cited the ongoing
normalization process with Armenia as the conduit to
resolution of the historical disagreement, as expected.
The slaughter would be cited, but in words other than
slaughter and genocide.

Still it can't have hurt to try prodding the Turks forward,
even if just a square or two. Best outcome of Obama in
Europe this week: George Bush is in fact, gone...

- Roy Greenfield / Cincinnati


Onnik Krikorian | April 7, 2009 8:53 PM | Reply

There's now a roundup of some blogger reaction to the speech on Global Voices:


In an interesting development, the Swiss foreign minister has revealed that she is mediating between Turkey and Armenia:


Onnik Krikorian | April 8, 2009 6:25 AM | Reply

In other related news, Obama has called Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and stressed the need for the normalization of Armenian-Azeri-Turkish relations.

US President Barack Obama urged a peaceful solution to long-running disputes between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey in a telephone call Tuesday with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev.

Obama, who visited Turkey this week before making a surprise stop in Iraq Tuesday afternoon, said the US was committed to "supporting progress" to resolve a long-running conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabah, a region claimed by both countries.

Onnik Krikorian | April 8, 2009 6:42 AM | Reply

Reaction to Obama's speech has also been greeted positively in Armenia:

Yerevan Press Club chairman Boris Navasartyan said he welcomed Obama’s remarks in Turkey, but said the real weight of the matter was on Turkish and Armenian leaders.

"The important thing is the step Armenia and Turkey are willing to take without any pressure. The step needs to be persuasive," he said.


The chairman of the Gyumri Journalists’ Club Asparez, Levon Barseghyan, praised Obama’s statements, saying, "Steps taken by Obama are praiseworthy in terms of the normalization of the Turkish-Armenian relations."

Caucasus Institute President Alexander Isgandaryan said it had been apparent that Obama would not risk relations with Turkey [...] but added that he found Obama’s statements in Turkey positive. "U.S. support for the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia and the establishment of relations is crucial," he said. link

Sarah Jones | April 10, 2009 4:21 PM | Reply

amazing post! i used it in my blog!!! thank you!

American Citizen | April 25, 2009 10:45 AM | Reply


Roy Greenfield | April 25, 2009 6:58 PM | Reply

A sample here of how U.S. media service McClatchy, treated
Obama's remarks yesterday;


McClatchy is not known as a right-wing mouthpiece, as other
U.S. media such as Ruppert Murdoch's Fox News Channel are.
Yet above it emphasizes his campaign promise to recognize
the genocide, and now reneged.

I think that's too slanted. We know the counterweights he
has to apply vis-a-vis Turkey. And the normalization is now
underway - he is not going to upset that.

The story quotes critical Armenian voices in America. But
I think Obama has managed to highlight the matter, which
in itself is a form of pressure on Turkey.


In a much-anticipated White House statement, Obama took note of the "great atrocities" that occurred in the Ottoman Empire from April 24, 1915, until 1923. While saying 1.5 million Armenians were "massacred or marched to their death," the president said the most important thing now was to look ahead.

"I strongly support efforts by the Turkish and Armenian people to work through this painful history in a way that is honest, open and constructive," Obama said.

The president also twice used the Armenian phrase "meds yeghern," often translated as "great calamity."


What do you think?