By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
President Robert Kocharian said on Monday that modern-day Turkey is responsible for the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as Armenia somberly marked the 91st anniversary of the start of the mass killings and deportations.
Hundreds of thousands of people silently marched to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan and laid flowers by its eternal fire in an annual remembrance of some 1.5 million victims of what many historians believe was the first genocide of the 20th century. Some of them carried Armenian flags and banners denouncing Turkey’s long-standing claims that the massacres occurred on a much smaller scale and therefore did not constitute a genocide.
The day-long procession began, as usual, with a prayer service in memory of the dead that was led by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, in the presence of President Robert Kocharian, members of his government and other senior officials.
The heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Yerevan were the next to lay wreathes at twelve bending columns that encircle the eternal fire on Tsitsernakabert Hill overlooking the city center. Among them was U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans, the first American official since President Ronald Reagan to publicly refer to the 1915-1918 massacres as genocide. “The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he declared in a February 2005 speech in California.
The U.S. government, which has so far avoided officially recognizing the genocide for fear of antagonizing Turkey, disavowed Evans’s remarks, saying that they reflected only his personal opinion. The State Department reportedly plans to recall the envoy, a move which would enrage the influential Armenian community in the United States.
Armenia’s leadership, meanwhile, reaffirmed its pledge to seek worldwide recognition of the genocide in collaboration with Diaspora Armenian lobbying groups in the West and to continue to raise the issue in its dealings Turkey. “Our pain is all the more intense as we are forced to struggle for the recognition and condemnation of that black page of our history,” Kocharian said in a traditional April 24 written address to the nation. “As the defender of the interests of the Armenians living in the homeland and around the world, the Republic of Armenia will continue that struggle.”
Kocharian indicated that Ankara’s unrepentant stance on the issue amounts to complicity in the genocide. “Ottoman Turkey and its legal successor bear full responsibility for this crime,” he said.
Armenian leaders have refrained in the past from implicating the existing Turkish state in the 1915 genocide. Kocharian’s statement was welcomed as an “interesting news” by a spokesman for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a nationalist governing party that favors a firm Armenian stand on the issue. Giro Manoyan told RFE/RL that he thinks Kocharian thus held Ankara responsible for “carrying out the final phase of the genocide.”
Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Kirakosian, for his part was quoted on Monday by the Turkish daily “Zaman” as saying that the authorities in Yerevan “believe the Turkish people are not responsible for the events of 1915.” “The Turkish administration at that time is the responsible party,” Kirakosian said, according to “Zaman.”
In a famous 1987 resolution, the European Parliament denounced the mass killings as a genocide but said “the present Turkey cannot be held responsible for the tragedy experienced by the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.”