By Emil Danielyan
President George W. Bush again stopped short of calling the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire a genocide on Sunday, using instead an Armenian equivalent of the politically sensitive term resented by modern-day Turkey. He also effectively endorsed an independent study that concluded that the massacres which began 90 years ago did constitute a genocide.
“On Armenian Remembrance Day, we remember the forced exile and mass killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire,” Bush said in his annual April 24 message to Americans of Armenian descent. “This terrible event is what many Armenian people have come to call the ‘Great Calamity’.
“I join my fellow Americans and Armenian people around the world in expressing my deepest condolences for this horrible loss of life. Today, as we commemorate the 90th anniversary of this human tragedy and reflect on the suffering of the Armenian people, we also look toward a promising future for an independent Armenian state.”
The “Great Calamity” was translated as “Mets Yeghern” in the Armenian-language version of the message released by the U.S. embassy in Yerevan. The Armenians use this term only with regard to the 1915-1918 slaughter of their kinsmen.
Bush thus followed the example of the late Pope John Paul II who appealed to God to heed “the call of the dead from the depths of the Mets Yeghern” during a historic visit to Armenia in September 2001. The delicate wording was aimed at placating Turkey. But the pontiff set the record straight the next day by describing the mass killings as a genocide in a joint statement with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Bush avoided using the term despite persistent calls by the influential Armenian-American community backed by more than 200 members of the U.S. Congress. But he did mention a study conducted by a New York-based human rights organization at the request of the U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) two years ago.
“The recent analysis by the International Center for Transitional Justice did not provide the final word, yet marked a significant step toward reconciliation and restoration of the spirit of tolerance and cultural richness that has connected the people of the Caucasus and Anatolia for centuries,” Bush said.
The ICTJ concluded in January 2003 that the Armenian massacres fit the definition of genocide set by a 1948 UN convention. Armenian members of the former TARC say the study dealt a serious blow to Turkish denial of the genocide.
But the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a nationalist party represented in Armenia’s government and influential in the Diaspora, claims the opposite, arguing that the document in question also found that the UN genocide convention has no retroactive impact and therefore can not be used by the Armenians for demanding any compensation from Turkey. Dashnaktsutyun leaders claim that the U.S. government itself engineered the study to seek Turkish recognition of the genocide “without consequences.”
Dashnaktsutyun’s lobbying arm in the United States, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), was quick to deplore Bush’s statement. “Unfortunately, this statement is a fresh attempt to help the government of Turkey continue its shameful policy of denying the crime against humanity,” said the ANCA executive director, Aram Hamparian.
Risking further Armenian criticism, Bush spoke favorably of Ankara’s controversial offer to Yerevan to set up a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians who would look into the subject and determine whether a genocide indeed took place. “We look to a future of freedom, peace, and prosperity in Armenia and Turkey and hope that Prime Minister Erdogan's recent proposal for a joint Turkish-Armenian commission can help advance these processes,” he said.
It was not clear if Washington is urging the Armenian government to accept the Turkish proposal. Armenian leaders say the genocide is a proven fact which can not be a subject of debate.
The late Ronald Reagan was the first and so far the only U.S. president to refer to the 1915 mass killings as a genocide in 198. John Evans, the current U.S. ambassador to Armenia, became the second U.S. government official to do so publicly at a series of meetings with Armenian-Americans last February.
“The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” Evans declared at one of those meetings, sparking talk of an imminent change in U.S. policy on the issue.
However, the State Department and Bush administration officials denied the speculation, insisting that Evans expressed his personal opinion on the matter.