By Ruzanna Stepanian and Hrach Melkumian
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians silently marched to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan Saturday in an annual remembrance of the 1915 genocide of their ethnic brethren in Ottoman Turkey, international recognition of which has gained more momentum over the past year.
A steady stream of people climbed the city’s Tsitsernakabert Hill throughout the rainy day, leaving a sea of flowers around the eternal flame symbolizing the memory of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians slaughtered during the First World War.
The official part of the commemoration took place in the morning, with President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and other Armenian leaders laying wreaths and flowers at the memorial. They stood together somberly as the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, led a prayer service in memory of the dead.
Further progress in international condemnation of the mass killings and deportations as a genocide was the main theme of Armenian leaders’ comments made on the occasion. “We will stay determined and I am convinced that we will achieve our goal,” Kocharian told reporters.
“Like every year on April 24, today we reiterate our will to stand above rancor and revengefulness,” he said in a separate written statement to the nation. “We are prepared to establish normal relations with all the countries of the region, including Turkey.”
“Sixteen states have already recognized the Armenian Genocide,” Baghdasarian said for his part. “We must continue to make sure that the entire world community knows what happened in 1915.”
The comments were echoed by leaders of the Armenian opposition. “Remembering the innocent victims of the genocide, we must also pay tribute everyone’s contribution to its international recognition,” Stepan Demirchian of the Artarutyun alliance said as he led several thousand opposition supporters to the Tsitsernakabert memorial. “We must keep the victims’ memory with actions and the greatest of them would be the creation of a strong, democratic state,” he added.
The opposition leaders, who had urged supporters to join them in marking the genocide anniversary, said their separate march should not be viewed as part of their two-month campaign for Kocharian’s resignation. The crowd was allowed to walk past the presidential palace on the city’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue which was the scene of serious violence almost two weeks ago. Still, busloads of riot police were again on standby in a nearby public park.
The latest April 24 commemoration came just days after Canada’s parliament ignored government warnings to pass a resolution terming the events of almost 90 years ago a genocide. A similar resolution was adopted by the parliament of another major Western nation, Switzerland, last December.
The Turkish government, which vehemently denies that the regime of Young Turks sought to wipe out the ethnic Armenian population of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, reacted furiously in both cases. Armenia, on the other hand welcomed the Swiss and Canadian votes as an affirmation of “historical justice.” While urging Ankara to follow suit, Yerevan is keen to stress that it does not link genocide recognition with the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
“I think the trends are positive,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said of the international community’s attitude to the issue. He pointed in particular to this month’s decision by “The New York Times” to allow its reporters to refer to the Armenian Genocide as a proven fact.
“After careful study of scholarly definitions of ‘genocide,’ we have decided to accept the term in references to the Turks’ mass destruction of Armenians in and around 1915,” the editorial board of the authoritative U.S. daily said in a statement circulated by the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
In another example of genocide affirmation, a major U.S. insurance firm agreed last January pay $20 million to the descendants of those genocide victims who had purchased its life insurance policies at the beginning of the 20th century. The move resulted from an out-of-court settlement reached by New York Life and a group of Armenian-Americans who had sued the company. California’s state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, who helped negotiate the agreement, described the 1915-1923 massacres as “a deliberate, systematic and government-controlled genocide.”
Despite its condemnation of the crime, the U.S. government continues to avoid using the word “genocide” in reference to the Armenian massacres, anxious to maintain its close relationship with Turkey, a key NATO ally. This stance was reaffirmed by President George W. Bush in his annual April 24 statement.
“On this day, we pause in remembrance of one of the most horrible tragedies of the 20th century, the annihilation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians through forced exile and murder at the end of the Ottoman Empire,” Bush said. “This terrible event remains a source of pain for people in Armenia and Turkey and for all those who believe in freedom, tolerance, and the dignity of every human life.”
“I join with my fellow Americans and the Armenian community in the United States and around the world in mourning this loss of life,” the statement added.
By contrast, Bush’s Democratic challenger in the November presidential elections, John Kerry, was unequivocal in terming the mass killings a genocide. “I join Armenian Americans and Armenians worldwide in mourning the victims of the Armenian Genocide and I call on governments and people everywhere to formally recognize this tragedy,” Kerry said in a statement.