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
"Yet again, you see the evasive statements and the euphemisms," Elizabeth
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
"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 email@example.com.
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