Friday, April 24, 2009

A martyrs' day special 

They came for him
before the birds were up�
he left without shoes
or tie, shirt or suspenders.
It was quiet.
The birds, the birds
were still sleeping.
Peter Balakian, The History of Armenia, 1980. (See more.)

Many Armenians refer to April 24 as Genocide Remembrance (Recognition) Day, but Martyr's Day is the most often used term, and this year has a special flavor for two reasons. First, the diaspora community is excited at the possibility that President Obama may fulfill a pledge he made during the campaign (that I talked about last month.) And now we have news that after 94 years we may begin to see a relationship between Turkey and Armenia as nations.
Turkey and Armenia said they agreed on a "road map" to restoring relations, shortly before U.S. President Barack Obama is to make a closely watched statement Friday on the 1915 mass murder of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

The road map, worked out in marathon talks with U.S. and Swiss mediation that lasted late into Wednesday night, sets out a "sequence of steps" that the historical foes must take toward restoring diplomatic relations and reopening Europe's only closed international border, according to people familiar with the matter.

The statement was a breakthrough, these people said, because for the first time both sides have gone on the record saying they had agreed to a framework for reconciliation. No time frame has been agreed upon.

It is a breakthrough, but it has been worked at for some time. We have had meetings on this for years, many mentioned on this blog. (Example.) The resistance to this is not one-sided. The Turks would like re-opening, and so would Armenians, but both

There is suspicion among some Armenians that the Turks have made this agreement to forestall recognition by the U.S. Maybe it will, but for the people in Armenia what matters more, Obama's statement or increased trade? That's a question that will be heatedly debated among them.

So I sit here waiting for the Obama announcement (I'm going to go to lunch then see what he says when I get home -- so far, nothing) I wonder how those who pinned their hopes for recognition on The One's election will feel if they don't get what they thought they would. Update forthcoming...

He says it, just not in English. Instead, he says it in Armenian: meds yeghern.

Ninety four years ago, one of the great atrocities of the 20th century began. Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people.

History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Just as the terrible events of 1915 remind us of the dark prospect of man�s inhumanity to man, reckoning with the past holds out the powerful promise of reconciliation. I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.

Do I wish he had said "genocide" in English? Yes. Let's be clear that calling it The Great Catastrophe (or Calamity) he's borrowed a term Armenians use instead, one that Pope John Paul II used in 2001. Bush used this same term in English in 2005. The Armenian National Institute keeps a collection of presidential proclamations. Maybe Obama wanted to show off his language skills, but he's certainly not pressed the reset button with this little trick. The Armenian National Committee of America's chairman Ken Hachikian is pretty miffed:
�I join with all Armenian Americans in voicing our sharp disappointment with President Obama�s failure to honor his solemn pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide.�

�In falling short of his repeated and crystal clear promises, which reflected a thorough knowledge of the facts, the practical implications, and the profound moral dimension of Armenian Genocide recognition, the President chose, as a matter of policy, to allow our nation�s stand against genocide to remain a hostage to Turkey's threats.�

�The President�s statement today represents a retreat from his pledge and a setback to the vital change he promised to bring about in how America confronts the crime of genocide.�
ANCA tracks Obama's campaign promises and other statements here. To ANCA I say, you were warned.

POSTSCRIPT: From Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's interview with the Wall Street Journal published this morning:

WSJ: On April 24, President Barack Obama is due to make a statement on Armenian memorial day. The focus is on whether he uses the term genocide or doesn't. Right or wrong, it seems clear that if the U.S. recognizes the genocide that will make the Turks less willing to engage with Armenia. Which is more important to you? The U.S. genocide recognition now, or success in these reopening talks with Turkey?

Mr. Sargsyan: I think already now the motivation of Turkey has decreased, because as you said Prime Minister Erdogan is now offering preconditions. I believe it is not us Armenians who push the U.S. to recognize the genocide. The U.S. had its diplomats, missionaries and businesses in the Ottoman Empire, as well as its insurance companies, on the ground at the time of the genocide. The amount of evidence, the amount of factual materials the U.S. possesses on the matter of genocide is excessive and is as convincing today as it was years ago. Therefore the moment the U.S. finds it necessary to recognize the genocide they will do it�I don't believe we are pushing people into a dilemma between national interest and moral standing.

WSJ: So your preference, the preference of the Armenian government, would be for Mr. Obama to recognize the Armenian genocide, even if that puts the last nail in the coffin of any deal with Turkey to open the border any time soon?

Mr. Sargsyan: I would not like to see this process in a coffin. I would like us to be more open and broad-minded when watching this issue. That is why we want this issue of genocide not to be an obstacle to our relations with Turkey. After all, by recognizing the genocide neither we nor other countries that recognize it want to harm Turkey. I think this matter is very straightforward, restoration of justice and prevention of genocide in the future. Because if we try to tie relations between Armenia and Turkey to recognition of the genocide by one country or another �Armenian-Turkish relations will always be the footballs of other countries. If some countries decide to create difficulties in those relations, they would just announce a recognition of genocide and so would compromise relations between Armenia and Turkey. Once again, it is not we who are pushing the U.S. to recognize the genocide.

As I've said repeatedly, the issue of genocide recognition is a diasporan issue, not an Armenian issue. Sargsyan will take a good amount of abuse for this statement among the diaspora (it matters in Armenia too, but you get a different flavor there).