U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday stood by his earlier statements describing the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide and said they should not hamper the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
Making his first official visit to Ankara, Obama also said that he is “very encouraged” by Armenia’s and Turkey’s ongoing efforts to normalized bilateral ties.
"Well, my views are on the record and I have not changed those views," Obama was reported to tell a joint news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
"I want to focus not on my views right now, but on the views of the Turkish and Armenian people. If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage that," he said.
Obama made the same point when he addressed the Turkish parliament later in the day. “I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915, and while there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, it is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past,” he said. “And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open, and constructive.”
During his election campaign Obama repeatedly referred to the 1915-1918 slaughter of more than one million Ottoman Armenians as genocide and pledged reaffirm such declarations once in office. "The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal
opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," he said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign website. "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."
Obama is under strong pressure from the influential Armenian community in the United States to honor this pledge in his statement due on April 24, the Armenian Remembrance Day. He has also been warned by Ankara that the use of the word genocide would seriously harm U.S.-Turkish relations and undermine Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
While not backtracking on his campaign statements, the U.S. president was on Monday careful not to publicly reiterate his affirmation of what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. According to Western news agencies, he argued that the highly sensitive issue is on the agenda of the ongoing Turkish-Armenian dialogue.
“What I have been very encouraged by is that ... there is a series of negotiations, a process between Armenia and Turkey to resolve a whole host of long-standing issues,
including this one," Obama told journalists. "I'm not interested in the United States in any way tilting these negotiations."
Standing alongside Obama, Gul denounced Armenian efforts at genocide recognition and renewed Ankara’s calls for a joint Turkish-Armenian academic study of the 1915 events. "It is not a political but an historic issue," he said. "That's why we should let historians discuss the matter."
For his part, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on Friday that his nation will never admit to the “so-called genocide.” “For Turkey, it is impossible to accept a thing that does not exist," Erdogan told a news conference in London.
Obama’s statements in Ankara prompted different reactions from the two main Armenian-American lobby organizations. Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), said Obama “missed a valuable
opportunity to honor his public pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide.” “We expect that the President will, during Genocide Prevention Month this April, stand by his word,” Hamparian said in a statement.
"For the first time, a U.S. President has delivered a direct message to Turkish officials in their own country that he stands behind his steadfast support and strong record of affirmation of the Armenian Genocide," read a separate statement by Bryan Ardouny of the Armenian Assembly of America. "On April 24, the Assembly looks forward to President Obama's statement reaffirming the Armenian Genocide."