No more than a few hundred of South Dakota’s 853,000 residents can trace their roots to Armenia, but that didn’t stop lawmakers in Pierre earlier this year from trying to commemorate the Armenian genocide. That made the Mount Rushmore State the 43rd in the nation to take such action, despite pushback from Turks opposed to the measure.
The South Dakota House resolution (which was later rejected by the state’s Senate) would’ve designated 2015 the “Year of Remembrance” for the 1915-23 genocide, called on Turkey to acknowledge the facts surrounding the tragedy and encouraged the South Dakota school system to incorporate lessons about the genocide into the state’s official curriculum.
Only seven other states — Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Texas and West Virginia and Wyoming — have so far not symbolically recognized the mass atrocities that Armenians say amounted to genocide. The Turkish government admits the killings happened but calls them an ugly consequence of war in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire, not a concerted, premeditated attempt to wipe out an entire people. Armenians, however, don’t buy that the forced expulsion and widespread killing of their forefathers was simply a chaotic blip in history.
“The Armenian genocide is not an allegation or a personal opinion,” declared Hrachia Tashchian, deputy chief of mission at the Armenian Embassy in Washington. “It is a widely documented fact supported by a vast amount of historical evidence.
“The genocide of 1915 had a number of grave consequences for the Armenian people, including dispossession of the homeland and destruction of Armenian heritage,” he added. Acknowledging it, said the diplomat, “will contribute to the elimination of those consequences the Armenian people have been suffering for the last century.”
Activists aim to have all 50 states acknowledge that suffering by April 24, 2015, when Armenians across the United States and throughout the world mark the 100th anniversary of what they say was the systematic murder of some 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks. According to Armenians — who follow Orthodox Christianity — April 24 was the day Muslim Turks began rounding up Armenian doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and others they saw as a threat to the empire.
“The recognition of the Armenian genocide is not a subject for political bargaining or political manipulation. It is a matter of historical justice,” Tashchian told us, noting that besides the 43 U.S. states that have passed supporting resolutions, 21 countries and several international bodies including the European Parliament in Brussels have done so as well.
But the tragedy has taken on deeply political overtones, as Armenians embark on an extensive grassroots push to get Americans to recognize a bitter historical dispute that has relatively little to do with them. The campaign is emblematic of the Armenian community’s larger success as one of most formidable lobby groups in the United States.
For years, Armenian-Americans have been trying to get Congress to officially recognize the genocide, and they’ve won the backing of powerful supporters like Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). But they’ve failed to convince the White House to wade into a diplomatically sensitive dispute that could jeopardize relations with Turkey, a key security and economic ally.
So Armenian activists have also set their sights on influencing public opinion at the local level, and that’s where state “friendship” resolutions come in. Although toothless, these resolutions confer a strange kind of legitimacy that Armenia — and rivals like Turkey and Azerbaijan — covet and collect in their tit-for-tat historical and territorial battles.
Local D.C. commemorations of the 100th anniversary begin April 22 with an observance at the Cannon House Office Building, though the main events will take place two days later in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
On May 7, an ecumenical service is planned at the Washington National Cathedral. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is expected to attend, along with members of Congress, foreign diplomats and other dignitaries.
Then on May 8, “A Journey Through 100 Years of Armenian Music” will be held at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. The Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra will perform a variety of pieces, from the traditional melodies of Komitas to contemporary works composed especially for the genocide’s centennial.
Finally, a divine liturgy will take place May 9 at the 3,000-seat Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. That night, the commemoration concludes with a $100-per-plate reception and banquet at Washington’s Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Yet the cash-strapped Armenian government in Yerevan has little to do with this effort. Rather, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) — a relatively obscure lobby shop off Washington’s Dupont Circle — has taken the lead.
Aram Hamparian, ANCA’s executive director, said his organization has just over 50 chapters and survives on donations from the 100,000 or so Americans of Armenian descent who are politically active.
“The vast majority of stuff we do is done by volunteers on a grassroots level, but we do have three people in our D.C. office who are registered lobbyists, including me,” Hamparian told us. “The only reason we’re relevant at all in this city is that there are tens of thousands of Armenians who vote and who care about these issues.”
What’s remarkable is that the entire Armenian-American community numbers no more than 1.5 million out of a total U.S. population of 318 million. That pales in comparison to Mexicans (31.8 million), Jews (6.2 million), Puerto Ricans (4.6 million), Chinese (3.8 million), Filipinos (3.4 million) and Salvadorans (1.7 million)
Yet the political influence of the Armenians, like the Jews, is far greater than their numbers alone would suggest — a consequence of both groups’ high levels of education and success in medicine, business and entertainment. Among prominent Armenian-Americans: casino mogul Kirk Kerkorian, homebuilder Kevork Hovnanian, TV reality star Kim Kardashian and columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post.
Given that half of America’s Armenian population lives in California, it’s little surprise that the latest genocide resolution in Congress emerged from lawmakers in that state. On March 18, the House introduced the nonbinding Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution, which urges President Obama to “work toward equitable, constructive and durable Armenian-Turkish relations based on the Republic of Turkey’s full acknowledgement of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.”
The bipartisan H.R. 154 was spearheaded by Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), along with 40 other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
At a Capitol Hill press conference to mark the bill’s introduction, Schiff talked about its importance to future generations.
“One hundred years ago, 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children were deliberately murdered in the first genocide of the 20th century. These facts are indisputable,” Schiff said. “And on this important anniversary and while there are still survivors among us, we in Congress and the president have an opportunity and an obligation to send a strong message that we will never forget those who were lost, and we will call this crime against humanity what it was, genocide.”
But a long line of U.S. presidents, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, have been reluctant to side with Armenia and antagonize Turkey, which in past years has threatened to pull its ambassador from Washington if a genocide resolution were to pass Congress.
Serdar Kiliç, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, says the “so-called genocide” is a myth peddled by “single-agenda lobbies” seeking to perpetuate Turkey’s negative image in the media.
“They are asking one of the parties to accept that they have committed genocide, but this was a war. An equal number of Turks suffered,” Kiliç told The Diplomat in a cover story that appeared in our March 2015 issue. “This is an issue to be decided by historians, not the U.S. Congress.”
Added Derya Taskin, president of the New York-based nonprofit Turkish Institute for Progress: “Our organization has been looking to create opportunities for Turks and Armenians to come together in a solutions-based dialogue that will lead to peace and reconciliation for the next 100 years. Resolutions like this only serve to deepen the division that has existed for the past century and keep us from coming together to mourn all the losses — Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Armenians — that occurred during this tragic period in our histories.”
ANCA says part of its mission, though, is to ensure that history is not forgotten, even for a conflict that may feel distant to most Americans. “This is not just an Armenian issue; it’s a human rights issue that for some reason has been forgotten,” said Elen Asatryan, executive director of ANCA’s Western Region, which covers 19 states west of the Mississippi River. “Every Armenian-American in the U.S. has somehow been affected by the genocide.”
Asatryan said her great-grandmother on her father’s side was the only survivor among seven siblings who were orphaned by the Ottoman Turks in the early days of World War I. Following the war, President Woodrow Wilson set up a massive humanitarian effort — the first of its kind in American history. From 1915 to 1930, she said, a total of $117 million was raised to set up more than 400 orphanages.
“This literally saved the Armenian nation from annihilation,” she said. “This is a very big part of American history.”
ANCA Executive Director Hamparian argues that congressional and state resolutions serve as a moral compass to prevent future genocides, whether in Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur or Syria.
“In 1939, prior to invading Poland, Hitler told his generals to kill every man, woman and child without reservations,” he said. “When some of his men objected, Hitler said, ‘Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ That quote is on the wall of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.”
When asked about money, Hamparian said ANCA’s budget is “considerably less than $1 million a year,” of which only a few hundred thousand goes to actual lobbying.
In March, the organization convinced officials in Los Angeles not to renew the city’s $850,000 lobbying contract with Gephardt Government Affairs, which is headed by former House Democratic Majority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. The contract was for advocacy work it was conducting on behalf of Los Angeles World Airports.
That’s because Gephardt is a registered foreign agent for Turkey “and Ankara’s point man” in obstructing U.S. condemnation of the Armenian genocide, says ANCA, which notes that his firm signed a lobby contract with the Turkish government that will pay $1.7 million between March and December 2015.
On Feb. 24, ANCA’s Bay Area chapter wrote to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf demanding that the city’s port end its $160,000 contract with Gephardt for much the same reason.
“Dick Gephardt’s unethical work in denying the Armenian genocide makes his firm persona non grata here in the state of California,” said Nora Hovsepian, chair of ANCA’s Western Region.
California alone is home to an estimated 1 million Americans of Armenian ethnicity. Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, has 95,000 Armenians, with other large communities in Fresno and throughout the Golden State.
In early March, the Los Angeles suburb of Carson was the focus of a heated protest after Mayor Jim Dear asked to erect a monument honoring Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey — and a man the Armenians consider the architect of their downfall.
At a hearing to discuss his proposal, more than 400 Armenians opposed to the Atatürk statue crowded City Hall, including Glendale Mayor Zareh Sinanyan and other mayors of Armenian heritage. When the Turkish consul-general of Los Angeles, Raife Gülru Gezer, got up to defend the idea, opponents turned their backs on her. Dear ultimately backed down, and the city council voted unanimously to reject the measure.
Such fervernt but obscure legislative battles are part of a long-running war for public opinion between Armenia and Turkey (which, incidentally, applauded the South Dakota Senate’s rejection last month of a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide).
In fact, Turkey isn’t ANCA’s only adversary. The organization has also taken a hard line against Azerbaijan, which has a serious border dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The two former Soviet republics went to war in 1988, ultimately signing a ceasefire in 1994, though border clashes continue to this day.
To counter Armenia’s well-established lobby machine, both Turkey and Azerbaijan have turned to high-powered help themselves, spending millions on outside advocacy and PR firms (Turkey alone has spent some $12 million on lobbyists since 2008.)
Several years ago, the Azeri government invited hundreds of U.S. mayors, state representatives and a few members of Congress to Baku — its glitzy capital fronting the Caspian Sea — on an all-expense-paid junket that was widely criticized by Armenians as a transparent attempt to buy the loyalty of state and local governments.
Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have a distinct advantage against Armenia in their courtship of American policymakers: strategic interests. Oil-rich Azerbaijan is seen as a moderate Islamic state that can serve as a bulwark to countries like Iran. Turkey, with its population of 75 million and GDP of $820 billion, is a linchpin NATO ally in a turbulent region.
But while Turkey and Azerbaijan have more than enough money and clout to match Armenia’s lobbying efforts, neither can mobilize the kind of diaspora voter base that Armenia has at its disposal. That gives Armenia’s well-organized network of activists an on-the-ground advantage, especially in local capitols.
“Whereas lobbying firms for Turkey and Azerbaijan are done through a foreign government, when it comes to recognition of the Armenian genocide, all the work is carried out by U.S. citizens,” Asatryan of ANCA-Western Region pointed out. “That plays a very big role in our elected officials not being bullied into going against something that has actually taken place.”
Added Hamparian: “We’ve made a lot of progress, and we have a good moral case. There’s a very strong government in Turkey that exercises a veto over what America can and cannot say. But this won’t last forever. It takes time and effort, but ultimately, America will come out on the right side of this issue.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.