By Emil DanielyanFormer U.S. presidential candidate Howard Dean ended a two-day visit to Armenia at the weekend with a pledge to drum up greater support among fellow Democrats in the U.S. Congress for legislation recognizing the genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
Dean, who now heads the Democratic Party’s governing National Committee, criticized the administration of President George W. Bush for its failure to publicly refer to the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of Armenians as a genocide. He said Washington should not fear antagonizing the government of Turkey, a key U.S. ally which strongly denies that the massacres were part of a premeditated effort to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
“The truth is that the Armenian genocide took place 90 years ago,” the former governor of Vermont told reporters after laying a wreath at Yerevan’s hilltop memorial to some 1.5 million victims of the genocide. “Over a million people were killed. There is no question that the United States should recognize this.”
“Sometimes facts are inconvenient,” he said, commenting on the Bush administration’s stance on the issue. “It is true that the Turks are great friends and allies of ours, but every country does things wrong once in a while. Our country enslaved millions of Africans for a long time. So we have to look back at the past. If you want to have reconciliation, you first have to have the truth.”
Dean, who was once tipped as Bush’s most likely challenger in the last U.S. presidential election, pledged to recognize the Armenian genocide during his unsuccessful campaign to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who unexpectedly defeated Dean in the Democratic primaries, gave similar promises and was endorsed by most Armenian-American organizations ahead of his November showdown with Bush.
Dean grinned when asked whether he thinks the U.S. would have already recognized the genocide if Bush had failed to win reelection. “There is no way of knowing that,” he said. “I believe that the Democratic Party has to deal with what the facts are. And the facts are that a genocide occurred. You can’t pretend that it didn’t happen.”
Dean went on to express his support for a draft congressional resolution that calls on Bush to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide” in his annual messages to the U.S.-Armenian community. “The Democrats do not control the House [of Representatives] or the Senate or, unfortunately, the White House,” he said. “But when I get home I will be speaking with the Democratic leadership of the House and ask them to support this resolution. And if we get a few Republicans we can pass it.”
The resolution was formally introduced on July 14 and has since been sponsored by 112 congressmen. Many of them are affiliated with the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, the largest bipartisan ethnic coalition in the U.S. lower chamber. Most of the 142 members of the Caucus represent California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Massachusetts -- the traditional Democratic strongholds that have the highest concentration of Americans of Armenian descent.
The Republican-controlled House was already very close to passing similar legislation in October 2000. Its almost certain adoption was effectively blocked by then President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Some Armenian-American observers say the House majority is even less likely to defy the current Republican administration on the issue.
Dean, who many Democrats hope will help to revive their party’s fortunes, admitted that the existence of the influential Armenian-American community was a key reason for his decision to visit Armenia. His meetings on Friday with President Robert Kocharian and other senior officials in Yerevan were organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential party that controls one of the two main Armenian lobbying groups in Washington. The meetings reportedly focused on U.S.-Armenian relations and the situation in the region.
“It is very important for us in the United States to have a strong Armenia,” said Dean. “We want Armenia to succeed as a democratic state and I think Armenia has done well in the last ten years. There is more that needs to be done, but I’m very pleased by the progress and I hope the progress will continue.”