With one weighty word, President Joe Biden made history on Saturday.
Recognizing the historical massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War One as genocide, Biden went further than any previous occupant of the White House and departed from decades of carefully calibrated language on the subject.
Biden’s statement was greeted with praise in the Armenian capital, Yerevan — and among the country’s diaspora, whose activists have long campaigned for such recognition — but met with anger in Ankara, where Turkey has denied that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915-17 should be considered a genocide.
“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday, marking the annual Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
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As a presidential candidate, Biden last year commemorated those killed in the final throes of the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey’s predecessor, and pledged to back efforts to recognize the deaths as genocide if elected.
Earlier this week, Representative Adam Schiff and a group of 100 bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to Biden urging him to “right decades of wrongs.” This follows a 2019 non-binding unanimous resolution passed by the Senate in favor of recognizing the killings as genocide.
The president’s decision to fulfil his campaign pledge now in office will prove largely symbolic, according to political experts. But the move does signal a return to the championing of human rights from the White House, they said, although likely to infuriate America’s NATO ally.
“This is very important for every Armenian,” said Suren Sargsyan, co-founder of the Yerevan-based think tank the Armenian Center for American Studies. He added that almost all Armenian families had ancestors who died in the historic massacres, including his own.
“Unfortunately, this recognition is not a legal recognition; it is not legally binding in order to lead to any compensation,” he added.
But Sargsyan said he was hopeful the U.S. recognition would pave the way for other nations to follow suit.
So far, about 30 countries have officially recognized the deaths as genocide — among them France, Russia, Canada and Lebanon — according to the Armenian National Institute, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces and in 2014 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of a “shared pain” regarding the deaths during World War One. But the country contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated or constitute a genocide.
For decades since then, U.S. presidents have refrained from labelling the killings as genocide, stymied by concerns about geo-political relations with an important strategic ally, mostly in the Middle East.
Since becoming president more than three months ago Biden had yet to call Erdogan until Friday, a day ahead of the announcement, a delay widely viewed as a cold shoulder towards Erdogan.
Neither the White House statement on the phone call nor a readout from the Turkish presidency made any mention of the Armenian issue. Instead, the leaders spoke of a “constructive bilateral relationship” and agreed to meet on the sidelines of a NATO summit in June, the White House said in a statement.
Kemal Kirişci, a Turkish academic and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank, said the “hardcore” position taken by Armenia made discussion of the topic in Turkey difficult.
He also said any U.S. criticism could be weaponized by Erdogan.
“When criticism from outside the country comes in an authoritarian environment it kind of plays into the hands of the authoritarian leader, because the leader can distract attention from problems inside the country,” Kirişci said.
But in reality, although Erdogan may adopt “very aggressive” language towards the U.S. in response to Biden’s speech, he will have few retaliation options, Kirişci added, as Turkey battles the coronavirus pandemic and a stalling economy.
Ali Çınar, a U.S.-Turkish foreign policy analyst said the Turkish public would be “very disappointed” at Biden’s statement and that the “emotional topic” would provoke a strong reaction.
“It was 100 years ago, why is United States getting involved in this historical debate between Turks and Armenians?” he said.
Armenia, a tiny country nestled between Asia and Europe in the Caucasus region with a population of around 3 million, has a large American diaspora. Among them are high-profile celebrities such as singer Cher, who was born Cherilyn Sarkisian, and the Kardashian dynasty of reality television fame.
Although small, the diaspora wields influence far greater than its numbers.
U.S. politicians have courted the Armenian-American vote for decades, including Vice President Kamala Harris who built her career in California, the state with the largest Armenian-American population.
“From an Armenian perspective it’s significant in terms of moral clarity,” said Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent thinktank in Yerevan. Adding that Biden’s statement was more than a gesture and signaled a “return by the U.S. to the moral high ground.”
Biden’s words also ended the “disingenuous” performances of previous U.S. administrations, he said, and came at a time of “grief and mourning” for many in Armenia, fresh from a defeat by neighbor and Turkish ally, Azerbaijan.
Last September saw weeks of fighting over 1,700 square miles of the disputed border territory Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenians setting fire to their homes as they ceded land to Azerbaijan under a fragile armistice. The disputed region has a majority ethnic Armenian population but is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s military defeat sparked demands for the downfall of the government and has been an open wound and source of humiliation for the country. Biden’s words will provide a boost to national pride, said Giragosian.
“Such a move by Washington is especially welcome and especially emotional,” he added.
For Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, a U.S.-based political organization, Biden’s “recognition is profoundly meaningful for our families,” he said. Adding that all four of his grandparents were genocide survivors and credited America with saving many lives.
But he urged Biden to translate the “symbolism” of Saturday’s statement into hard policy, including supporting Armenia’s security, suspending aid programs to Azerbaijan and stopping arms deals with Turkey, despite any “temper tantrum” the country may throw as a result.
Biden’s statement meant a lot to the Armenian-American community, he added, as it showed “that our government is no longer lying about our history.” Making it clear that “America is a country that will do the right thing.”