RONDELI BLOG

What does US President Joe Biden’s Recognition of the Armenian Genocide Imply?

2021 / 04 / 28

Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
 

On April 24, 2021, US President Joe Biden recognized the Armenian Genocide, thus crossing the "political rubicon" in Turkish-American relations.

The recognition of the events that took place 106 years ago as genocide by the President of the United States is unequivocally a political step that has its goals and objectives.

This, in turn, precipitates diverse attitudes in the international arena and makes Turkey's position in the new reality interesting.

           

Why now?

Numerous US presidents have made pre-election promises to the Armenian lobby to recognize the genocide. However, during the presidency, they would take into account the sensitive attitude of Turkey towards this issue and refrain from recognizing it.

Biden's predecessors feared a deterioration of relations with Turkey and avoided using the word "genocide" openly. As a rule, American leaders used the term "Meds Yeghern", which means "the greatest evil".

Biden, who since his vice-presidency has had an uneasy relationship with President Erdogan (three months into the presidency, until April 23, he did not even call his Turkish counterpart), shattered all previous taboos and took a bold step.

In terms of the recognition, it is noteworthy that the political elite of the United States (both Democrats and Republicans) is quite concerned about the recent actions of Turkey, which aims to pursue a foreign policy in the region independent from Washington. It is in this prism that the Americans view the purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems by Turkey, precipitating the imposition of US sanctions, although relatively light, but still psychologically significant.

In choosing the right time to recognize the genocide, Washington most likely took into account the fact that Turkey is facing serious economic difficulties at the moment (socio-economic problems caused by the Covid lockdowns, outflow of Western investments, devaluation of the Turkish Lira, increased unemployment, diminished monetary reserves, etc.) and it does not have the luxury to take effective steps against the US, which would primarily hurt Ankara and its economy in the first place.

 

Despite numerous difficulties in Turkish-Western relations, Ankara, for its own pragmatic reasons, is unable to turn its back on the West and at once move closer to Russia. For its part, neither is Moscow able to offer Ankara alternative security guarantees or financial assistance.

 Neither the messages sent to the West a few weeks ago about a possible revision of the Montreux Convention nor its open support for Ukraine was able to help Ankara - the White House simply did not take these factors into account.

The US recognition of the Armenian Genocide was also a kind of support for pro-Western Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is facing early parliamentary elections after the defeat of the Armenian side in the Second Karabakh War and whose removal from power has long been attempted by Russia.

 

Text of the statement

Many have noticed that in the official statement of the White House on the recognition of the genocide, the city of Constantinople is mentioned instead of Istanbul, which is also a sensitive topic and a red line for the Turkish side.  

The introduction of the statement reads: Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring. Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported or massacred…

Of those who survived, most were forced to find new homes and new lives around the world, including in the United States... Over the decades, Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores.... We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”

The full text of President Joe Biden’s official statement

 

Position of the Turkish side

Naturally, the Turkish side (not only official Ankara, but also the opposition parties, aside from the pro-Kurdish “People's Democratic Party”), strongly protested this decision by Washington.

Responding to Washington's recognition of the Armenian genocide, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Chavushoglu said that Ankara "condemns this statement, which is based solely on populism." In an official statement, the minister said that "historical facts are being distorted" in the United States and that recognition of genocide will never be accepted in the consciousness of the Turkish people, and that it will inflict a deep wound on the peoples whose mutual trust and friendship is undermined. The ministry called on the United States to correct "this serious mistake."

However, the most important thing here was that in the official statements, only protest was expressed. No-one in Ankara (at least at this stage) intends to take steps (for example, the issue of operation of a US military base in Incirlik is not on the agenda) to further strain Turkish-American bilateral relations.

Traditionally, Turkey denies allegations of the Armenian genocide and reacts extremely bitterly to Western criticism on the issue. Ankara insists on rejecting the term "genocide" and notes that not only Armenians but also Turks and other nationalities were killed in the events of 1915. Turkey also believes that the death toll from those events has been exaggerated.

Ankara considers it is unacceptable to politicize this topic. Therefore, their proposal is to create a joint working group with the participation of Turkish and Armenian scientists, who would work in the archives of both countries, with the aim of establishing the truth.

Turkey suspects that at a later stage, the descendants of genocide victims or survivors may seek compensation; some also fear that territorial claims on Turkey’s eastern provinces may intensify.

             

Conclusion

  • US President Joe Biden's recognition of the Armenian Genocide has shown that distancing from the West has its "price" for Turkey, and Washington has managed to cross a "political rubicon" in its relations with Ankara;
  • Allies of relatively small size and weight may follow the example of Washington, which will bring additional discomfort to Ankara in the international arena;
  • An even more undesirable fact for Turkey would be the further steps of the Armenian Diaspora related to the demand for compensation;
  • Official Ankara condemns and will continue to condemn similar recognition. However, at this point, we see more short-term actions on its part. Turkey is reluctant to take steps that could inflict lasting damage to both the bilateral relations and the already dire Turkish economy;
  • With this recognition, Washington supports the pro-Western players (first of all, Pashinyan and his political party) in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia, where the main battle will be precisely between the pro-Russian and pro-Western forces;
  • At this stage, it is less expected to have Georgia alter its position on the issue. Ankara remains a very important military-political and trade-economic partner for Tbilisi. Moreover, a number of mutual transport and energy projects unite Georgia and Turkey. Consequently, official Tbilisi will refrain from taking steps that would hurt the continuation of its strategic partnership with Ankara.

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