By Emil Danielyan
President Serzh Sarkisian discussed a wide range of issues, including Armenia’s ongoing rapprochement with Turkey, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported by his office on Wednesday.
As they spoke, U.S. lawmakers formally introduced a fresh draft resolution that refers to the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide and urges President Barack Obama to do the same. The Obama administration did not immediately react to the initiative strongly backed by the influential Armenian community in the United States.
A short statement issued by the Armenian presidential press service said Sarkisian and Clinton discussed U.S.-Armenian relations and, in particular, the recent extension of a freeze on some of American economic assistance to Yerevan. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation made the decision, citing the “status of democratic governance” in Armenia, at a March 11 meeting of its governing board chaired by Clinton.
The statement said that Sarkisian and Clinton also touched upon international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and “the Turkish-Armenian political dialogue.” It gave no details.
The U.S. State Department issued no statements on Clinton’s first-ever conversation with the Armenian leader. The acting department spokesman, Robert Wood, did not mention it at a daily press briefing in Washington on Tuesday.
The current and previous U.S. administrations have welcomed the dramatic thaw in the traditionally strained Turkish-Armenian relations. After months of high-level negotiations, the two neighboring states appear to be on the verge of to establishing diplomatic relations and opening their border.
Official Ankara has repeatedly warned that Obama will set back the long-awaited normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties if he publicly describes the 1915-1918 massacres of Armenians as genocide. “A bad step by the United States would only worsen the process,” Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said on March 8.
Babacan’s Armenian counterpart, Eduard Nalbandian, dismissed Turkish warnings during a visit to Paris last week.
The highly sensitive issue is expected to feature large during Obama’s trip to Turkey scheduled for April 5. Turkish leaders already raised their concerns with Clinton when she visited Ankara earlier this month.
During the U.S. presidential race, both Obama and Clinton repeatedly called the slaughter of more than a million Ottoman Armenians a genocide and pledged to reaffirm such declarations once in office. Neither leader has publicly commented on the subject since taking office.
“The Los Angeles Times” reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration is now considering postponing an official U.S. recognition of the genocide in view of the unprecedented Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and Turkey’s importance for the success of U.S. plans on Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. "At this moment, our focus is on how, moving forward, the United States can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past," Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, told the paper.
The Armenian-American community and its allies in the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, hope that Obama will honor his campaign pledges. "We do not minimize Ankara's threats of adverse action when you recognize the genocide, or when Congress takes action to formally recognize the genocide, but we believe that our alliance is strong enough to withstand the truth," a group of congressmen wrote in a recent letter to the president.
Stepping up the pressure on the White House, the lawmakers on Tuesday submitted to the House of Representatives a bill that calls on Obama to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide” in his statement due on April 24, the genocide remembrance day.
Armenian-American lobbying groups, meanwhile, seem confident that Obama will not bow to the Turkish pressure. “The Armenian government has been clear that no linkage exists between normalizing relations and U.S. genocide recognition, and aside from Turkish lobbying efforts, no one seriously thinks that President Obama, Vice President Biden or Secretary Clinton will jeopardize U.S. and their own credibility in opposing genocide recognition,” Van Krikorian, a senior member of the Armenian Assembly of America, told RFE/RL. “Turkey continues to come to terms with its own past and a reversion to the policy of accommodating denial will cut that off at the knees.”