By Emil Danielyan
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans issued on Monday an ambiguous explanation for his public description of the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide, saying that it was an “inappropriate” expression of his personal opinion.
Evans again referred to the Armenian genocide as a fact, but regretted “misunderstandings” caused by his remarks.
“Misunderstandings may have arisen as a result of comments made by me during recent informal meetings with Armenian-American groups in the United States regarding the characterization of the Armenian tragedy in Ottoman Turkey and the future status of Nagorno Karabakh,” he said in a statement.
“Although I told my audiences that the United States policy on the Armenian Tragedy has not changed, I used the term “genocide” speaking in what I characterized as my personal capacity. This was inappropriate,” he added.
Evans became the first U.S. government official since former President Ronald Reagan to publicly refer to the 1915-1918 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as “genocide” at a series of meetings with Americans of Armenian extraction earlier this month. Sources say leaders of the influential U.S.-Armenian community were implicitly told by U.S. State Department officials to give the genocide recognition the utmost publicity.
The administration of President George W. Bush has so far avoided using the term “genocide” with respect to the Armenian massacres, anxious not to antagonize Turkey, a key U.S. ally. But Evans’s remarks could signal a change in that policy.
“The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century. I pledge to you, we are going to do a better job at addressing this issue,” the envoy declared at one of those meetings.
A U.S. source familiar with the Bush administration’s thinking suggested that the comments may be part of a “fresh U.S. push to improve Turkish-Armenian relations.” “Washington seems to be testing the waters,” the source told RFE/RL, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The U.S. has for years been pressing Turkey to reopen its border with Armenia, arguing that such a move would ease Turkish-Armenian tensions and reflect positively on regional stability. Ankara has until now refused to lift the embargo without preconditions, however.
Evans was equally vague on his reported remark that Karabakh’s return under Azerbaijani rule would have “disastrous” consequences.” “The U.S. government supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and holds that the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he said in Monday’s statement.
“Everybody realizes that Karabakh can't be given back to Azerbaijan,” Evans said in a February 19 speech in California, according to the local chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America.
Azerbaijan was quick to condemn the remark. According to the official AzerTaj news agency, Baku’s ambassador in Washington, Hafiz Pashaev, demanded an explanation from top State Department officials and was assured by them that Evans had voiced his personal views.
“It seems that the atmosphere of the two-week meetings in different states with the Armenian Diaspora influenced Ambassador Evans to such an extent that he didn't adhere to a basic principle of diplomacy,” Pashaev was quoted as saying.