The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

He Fails to Call 1915 Killings by Ottoman Empire Genocide

By Michael Doyle -- Bee Washington Bureau
The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, California
Saturday, April 26, 2003


WASHINGTON -- President Bush this week highlighted an enduring political dilemma for California's sizable Armenian American community.

What best serves the strategically vital relationship with Turkey: reconciliation, or an unrelenting hard line? Proponents of either view could draw sometimes conflicting signals as Bush issued his latest, delicately phrased annual statement on what he termed for the first time "the great calamity" of 1915.

"(This) marks the anniversary of a horrible tragedy, the mass killings and forced exile of countless Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire," Bush declared in the statement issued Thursday.

Politically active Armenian Americans united in denouncing Bush for refusing to use the word "genocide" to describe the period in which, by some estimates, upward of 1.5 million Armenians died.

"We have encouraged the president repeatedly to use the genocide term when referring to these events," John Iceman, chief of staff for Rep. George Radanovich, OR-Mariposa, said Friday.

Radanovich and 167 other members of Congress wrote Bush urging him to characterize the 1915-23 events as genocide. Bush had pledged he would do so during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he was seeking the support of concentrated Armenian American populations in such states as Michigan, New Jersey and California.

In the San Joaquin Valley alone, the Armenian American population has been estimated at upward of 50,000 residents.

Past presidents made similar pledges and likewise broke them. The State Department opposes the use of more vehement language, saying it would be an affront to a key U.SO. ally.

Bush went this year with a new alternative, stating that "many Armenians refer to these appalling events as the 'great calamity.' "

This is a reference to the Armenian-language phrase "meds leghorn," which can also be translated as "great crime" and which was previously used by Pope John Paul II while visiting Armenia.

Still, it was not sufficiently specific for many Armenian American activists.

"Yet again, you see the evasive statements and the euphemisms," Elizabeth SO. Chouldjian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian National Committee of America, said Friday.

Armenian Americans differ, though, over what Bush went on to say.

In a noteworthy departure from past efforts, Bush offered a salute to "our wise and bold friends from Armenia and Turkey who are coming together in a spirit of reconciliation." Such efforts at "rising above bitterness," Bush added, can build a "spirit of hope and understanding."

Bush was apparently referring, discreetly, to the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission. The 10-member group, which receives modest levels of both private and State Department funding, has met periodically since 2001.

"We greatly appreciate his support, and the support of all people of good will," Van SO. Krikorian, a New York attorney and member of the commission, said of Bush's statement in an interview Friday.

Krikorian is a board member, and past chairman, of the Armenian Assembly of America. He is one of four representatives of the Armenian side on the reconciliation commission, which has been engaged in what one member termed "very practical diplomacy" with Turkish representatives.

"We knew the commission would have a substantial shock value," said one commission member, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was a big risk." So, apparently, was Bush's sympathetic commentary.

Chouldjian said it was "particularly disconcerting" to see Bush's praise for an effort that is not backed by either the Armenian Assembly or the Armenian National Committee. Though Krikorian is a leader in the Armenian Assembly, the organization disassociated itself from the commission's work.

"We find it offensive that the president would use this most solemn of occasions for the Armenian American community to attempt to revive ... a failed initiative strenuously denounced by all facets of our community," Armenian National Committee of America Chairman Kenneth Tactician said in a statement.

A highly sensitive study conducted for the commission, by the International Center for Transitional Justice, concluded that "all the elements of the crime of genocide" were present in the 1915 events and that "people would be justified in continuing to so describe them."

At the same time, the study concluded that no "legal, financial or territorial claims" could be made upon Turkey, because the crime of genocide was not recognized until after World War II.

The commission members, who had been stymied for months over the report, stated simply that they would resume their "work for reconciliation." That irks activists who think the genocide issue -- and, by extension, the possibility of compensation -- remain unresolved.

The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, California, Saturday, April 26, 2003
Michael Doyle can be reached at
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