In one important word, President Joe Biden made history on Saturday.
Recognizing the historic massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Biden went further than any other White House resident, moving away from decades of carefully calibrated language on the subject.
Biden’s statement was greeted with praise in the Armenian However, capital Yerevan – and among the country’s diaspora, whose activists have long campaigned for such recognition – met with anger in Ankara, where Turkey has denied that the Deaths of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915-17 should be considered genocide.
“The American people honor all those Armenians who were killed 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 last pulls of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, and promised back Efforts to have the deaths recognized as genocide if elected.
Earlier this week, Representative Adam Schiff and a group of 100 bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to Biden asking him to “correct decades of injustice”. This follows a non-binding 2019 unanimous decision of the Senate to recognize the murders as genocide.
The president’s decision to keep his election promise now in office will prove largely symbolic, according to political experts. But the move signals a return of human rights advocates from the White House, although this will likely anger America’s NATO allies.
“This is very important to every Armenian,” said Suren Sargsyan, co-founder of the Yerevan-based think tank of the Armenian Center for American Studies. He added that almost all Armenian families had ancestors who died in the historical massacres, including his own.
“Unfortunately, this recognition is not a legal recognition; it is not legally binding to result in compensation,” he added.
But Sargsyan said he was confident that US recognition would pave the way for other nations to follow suit.
So much about 30 countries have officially recognized the deaths as genocide – including France, Russia, Canada, and Lebanon – according to the Armenian National Institute, a Washington DC-based nonprofit organization.
Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces, and in 2014 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of a “common pain” in relation to the deaths during the first world war. But the country denies the numbers and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated or any genocide.
For decades since then, US presidents have refrained from labeling the killings as genocide, hampered by concerns about geopolitical ties with a key strategic ally, mainly in the Middle East.
Recently, however, relations have been strained on a number of issues, including Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons systems and political differences in the Syrian conflict.
Biden has had to call since he became president more than three months ago Erdogan until Friday, one day before the announcement, a delay widely seen as a cold shoulder on Erdogan.
The Armenian issue was not mentioned in either the White House statement on the phone call or any advertisement from the Turkish Presidency. 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 Armenia’s “hardcore” position had made discussion of the issue difficult in Turkey.
He also said any US criticism could be armed by Erdogan.
“When criticism from outside the country occurs in an authoritarian environment, it plays into the hands of the authoritarian leader because the leader can divert attention from problems within the country,” Kirişci said.
But in reality, while Erdogan may adopt “very aggressive” language towards the US in response to Biden’s speech, there will be little retaliation, Kirişci added, as Turkey battles the coronavirus pandemic and a stalled economy.
Ali Çınar, a US-Turkish foreign policy analyst, said the Turkish public was “very disappointed” with Biden’s statement and that the “emotional issue” would generate a strong reaction.
“It was 100 years ago why is the United States participating in this historic Turkish-Armenian debate?” he said.
Armenia, a tiny country between Asia and Europe in the Caucasus with around 3 million inhabitants, has a large American diaspora. Among them are high profile celebrities like Cherilyn Sarkisian born singer Cher and the Kardashian dynasty of reality television.
Though small, the diaspora exerts a far greater influence than their numbers.
US politicians have courted the Armenian-American vote for decades, including Vice President Kamala Harris She built her career in California, the state with the largest Armenian-American population.
“From an Armenian perspective, this is important for moral clarity,” said Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Regional study center, an independent think tank in Yerevan. The addition of this statement from Biden was more than a gesture and signaled a “US return to moral high”.
Biden’s words also put an end to the “insincere” achievements of previous US governments and came at a time of “grief and sorrow” for many in Armenia, fresh from a defeat for neighbor and Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
Last September there were weeks of arguments 1,700 square miles the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh border area, with Armenians setting fire to their homes as they surrendered land to Azerbaijan under a fragile ceasefire. The disputed region is largely ethnic Armenian population but is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s military defeat sparked calls for the overthrow of the government and was an open wound and source of humiliation for the country. Biden’s words will strengthen national pride, Giragosian said.
“Such a move by Washington is particularly welcome and particularly emotional,” he added.
For Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, a US-based political organization, Biden’s “appreciation for our families is very important,” he said. All four grandparents were genocide survivors and credited America with saving many lives.
But he urged Biden to translate the “symbolism” of Saturday’s declaration into tough policies, including supporting Armenia’s security, suspending aid programs to Azerbaijan and stopping arms deals with Turkey, despite all the “tantrums” that have caused Land 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.” It clarifies that “America is a country that will do the right thing”.