Editors: Vanouhi Petrosyan & Berna Yusein
On Saturday 24th April, the day marking Armenian Remembrance Day, US President Joe Biden issued a document describing the mass killings of roughly 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as ‘genocide’. The President had referred to it as a ‘genocide’ on the campaign trail last year, and he vowed to do so if he was elected, a move backed by dozens of members of Congress from both parties. Until now, the White House refrained from using the word ‘genocide’ not to compromise the country’s relations with Turkey. Despite not holding any legal consequences, far as it is merely a symbolic gesture, it is a significant move. For one, it lays the foundation for state-level recognition, where recognition by the US will encourage more nations, including some NATO allies who may have been hesitant due to their relationship with Turkey. It can also be seen as a clear political assessment, which will be regarded as the official position of the US on the matter.
To Armenians, the statement was a long-awaited acknowledgment of an atrocity against their people they believe has been persistently understated
To Armenians, the statement was a long-awaited acknowledgment of an atrocity against their people they believe has been persistently understated. This is a psychological gesture that is important for Armenians around the world. The recognition may be an important step to heal the Armenian community’s intergenerational trauma’. Potentially, Biden’s declaration represents an important step toward fulfilling America’s commitment to human rights across the world. However, recognizing the Armenian genocide will truly matter for the Armenian people if the White House takes strong measures to help protect the security of Armenians, including in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region over which Armenia and Azerbaijan recently went to war. Armenians believe that the US should adopt humanitarian relief measures to displace Karabakh Armenians and sanction Turkey and Azerbaijan for their involvement in the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Many Armenians have also had to come to terms with what it is called “cultural genocide”. Reports and studies indicate that over the past 30 years, cultural and religious Armenian artifacts were covertly and systematically destroyed in an alleged Azerbaijani campaign to eliminate indigenous Armenian culture in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave between Armenia, Iran and Turkey. These included 5,840 cross-stones, the earliest of which date back to the 6th century, despite a 2000 UNESCO order demanding their protection. Many factors have determined the timing of Biden’s statement. First, that U.S.-Turkey relations have gradually frayed in recent years as the two countries’ interests clash and Turkey partners more closely with Russia, possibly making Biden’s symbolic move less costly.
In Turkey, on the other hand, Biden’s formal recognition of mass killings of Armenians in the final years of Ottoman Empire as a genocide was met with backlash
In Turkey, on the other hand, Biden’s formal recognition of mass killings of Armenians in the final years of Ottoman Empire as a genocide was met with backlash. It was stated that this decision will be a ‘deep wound’ in the two NATO allies’ relationship. Erdogan also referenced the atrocities Native Americans endured at the hands of European Settlers, calling Biden to look into their own American history. Turkey views that huge numbers of people, both Armenian, Muslim Turks and other minorities, died and suffered humanitarian crisis as the Ottoman Empire fought during WWI. Erdogan even offered his condolences to Armenia in 2014, over the suffering their ancestors were subjected to during WWI, a first in Turkey’s history. However, when it comes to the term ‘genocide’ being used, Turkey’s rejection continues almost unanimously in the parliament, noting that the term was not even legally defined until the end of WWII. Another core reason Turkey rejects the designation of this term is to prevent reparation requests at, individual or state level.
Most American presidents promised to recognize the Armenian genocide during their campaigns but have always swayed from this action when they come in office
Most American presidents promised to recognize the Armenian genocide during their campaigns but have always swayed from this action when they come in office, to maintain a good relationship with Turkey whom they perceived as a key strategic ally. After notably taking over three months to call Erdogan, the new American President finally fulfilled this long-awaited promise, a sure sign of what Biden’s attitude will behold towards Turkey. Domestically, Erdogan is likely to use Biden’s decision to bolster support for himself by evoking nationalist and Islamist sentiments, something he desperately needs as the public continues to grow frustrated with the weight of economic struggles and oppressive Covid measures. Externally, however, he keeps his reaction measured, likely to avoid further global debate on the matter and avoid straining relationships further with the US. Despite criticizing Biden’s decision, Erdogan pointed out that he is looking forward to review all the contested issues with the US President at the NATO Summit in June.
Beyond Erdogan’s long-lasting disregard for democracy and personal freedoms and clashing geopolitical goals in Syria, Turkey purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defense systems in 2017 has become the last drop for the US Turkey was faced with sanctions. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the US Congress seems too eager to ‘discipline’ Turkey, but mistaking the country with the actions of its government. Regardless, Washington seems convinced that Erdogan needs tougher treatment. Cagaptay argues that Erdogan is majorly economically tied to Russia and returning the S-400s are out of the question when the Turkish economy has been suffering gravely. If challenged, Putin could impose sanctions on trade or tourism or prompt Assad to attack rebel-held Idlib, triggering a new wave of refugees to the Turkish borders. With his approval rates plummeting, Erdogan cannot afford to take on such new challenges. At the same time, for the same reasons, Turkey cannot afford to strain its relationship with the US any further. Cagaptay suggests that Biden caught up to the fact that Turkey needs the US more than the US needs Turkey, which is why Biden picked this moment to recognize the Armenian genocide formally. He realizes that Turkey’s current compromised state means it can’t afford to have a strong reaction.
Overall, this may affect the geopolitical situation in the region as a whole. Some may argue that the statement is not even in favour of the regional politics of the US, much less Turkey-US relations and the situation of Turkish citizens of Armenian descent. Also, whether the declaration risks damaging or aiding the post-conflict peacebuilding process in the South Caucasus remains questionable.
The Editors: Berna Yusein & Vanouhi Petrosyan
Berna Yusein holds a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. She has gained significant insight and experience in research, development, and humanitarian action through working with different think tanks and charities. Her research interests consist of security issues, geopolitical risks and socio-cultural dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Vanouhi Petrosyan is a MSc International Relations Student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and holds a First-Class BA in International Development from King’s College London. She has significant experience in research and has conducted critical policy and political analysis particularly within European and international politics. Vanouhi also has well-founded knowledge of Transcaucasia with focus on security issues and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.