Last week’s declaration from President Joe Biden that the United States formally recognized the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, even though it was expected, was widely welcomed by Armenian Americans and human rights advocates nationwide.
Now, advocates say they will pivot their energy toward the logical next steps beyond this milestone, which includes seeking a more tangible acknowledgement of the atrocities that left upwards of 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered at the hands of Turkish nationalists in the waning empire. The erosion of Armenians’ sovereignty over their historic lands mostly continued in the aftermath, as the emergent republic was absorbed by the imperialist Soviet Union and, after regaining independence, twice warring with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Hasmik Burushyan, a Glendale-based central executive member of the Armenian Youth Federation’s western U.S. chapter. “This is only a mark of our marathon that we’ve reached.”
A pledge from his campaign, Biden’s announcement was highly anticipated last week. April 24, a significant date for members of the Armenian diaspora, was the 106th anniversary of the violence in now-Istanbul that is considered to have begun the genocidal campaign. Although American presidents and presidential candidates typically campaigned on recognizing the genocide, their statements have always fallen short of that until now.
“So much weight is given to presidential proclamations like that,” said Vaché Thomassian, a board member of the Glendale chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America, adding that it was an important step, “but also just a step, at this point, toward justice.”
The statement was usually seen as diplomatically and politically challenging because of the United States’ defense pact with the Republic of Turkey through NATO and the nation’s strategically advantageous location in proximity to America’s geopolitical foes in Moscow and Tehran. Relations with Turkey, however, have soured in recent years as the nation purchased missile defense hardware from Russia, confronted predominantly Kurdish militant groups in Syria that are allied with the U.S. and cracked down on human rights domestically following a failed 2016 coup against autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Additionally, in 2017 bodyguards accompanying Erdogan on a diplomatic visit to Washington evaded American police to attack a group of protesters outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
“Biden finally said ‘No’ to standing Turkish denial of the genocide and finally broke free from the ‘Turkey gag rule,’” Burushyan said Wednesday, referencing a coined phrase for Turkey’s past influence on the issue. “It’s imperative because he broke free from the rhythm that all of our presidents were keeping and perpetuating.”
Contemporary tension reached a zenith in the fall after Azerbaijan’s military launched an offensive to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had functioned as an autonomous breakaway region under the name Artsakh after Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of the land in 1994 following a several-year war. The historically Armenian region had been assigned Azerbaijani control by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and Turkish military technology was credited as helping Azerbaijan overwhelm the defense forces and volunteer militias in Artsakh last year.
The aggression, which included prisoner of war executions, the use of illegal explosive ordinances and destruction of cultural landmarks, was almost universally seen by the diaspora as a spiritual continuation of the genocide.
“Our people know very well what our oppressors are trying to do,” Burushyan said, “but the fact that they’re so honest with what they’re doing and the world is still silent is really hard to take in.”
American political pressure has been mounting toward this moment. Congressman Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat who also represents Glendale, had for years spearheaded efforts for the House of Representatives to recognize the genocide. That resolution was finally adopted in 2019, after years of stymied attempts, after which the U.S. Senate also adopted it. A number of states and cities also have recognized Artsakh as a nation — something not even Yerevan has done — particularly as fighting resumed last year.
“For me personally, I remember back in college days when the House Resolution 106” — a prior attempt by Schiff in the 2007-08 session — “was being debated and I was literally sitting outside on my laptop and counting votes as various congress people were casting their ballots,” Thomassian said. “Even in the committee votes, the feeling of constantly having your history hit a political wall over and over…With the recent house and senate resolutions, that wall cracked and started to crumble.”
Years and years of advocacy by the Armenian diaspora have led to this moment, Burushyan said. With large communities in Glendale and other parts of Los Angeles, as well as Fresno, Armenian Americans are politically influential in California and nationwide, having secured prominent support from a variety of congressional representatives and senators.
“It only speaks to the activism that we have put in as generations,” Burushyan said. “It shows that there is a concrete testimony that activism truly does work. Generations of Armenians to come and allies need to now demand recognition from the Republic of Turkey.”
Moving forward, Thomassian, who is an attorney and adjust constitutional law instructor at Woodbury University, predicted that energy would pivot to more concrete demands from Turkey and, potentially, Azerbaijan. Possible sanctions notwithstanding, he considered how, after World War II and the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Trials criminally tried Nazis and their collaborators and how the German government engaged in a “comprehensive” reparations plan with the Jewish people. He also noted he was encouraged that the House recently convened a panel to study reparations for Black Americans descended from former slaves.
“Both of those never happened for the Armenian people,” Thomassian said. “That confiscation [of land, property and wealth] ended up being the foundation that much of Turkey is built on today, so that day of reckoning is a comprehensive reparations plan.
“While recognition is the morally correct step, on a legal basis that crime and its consequences need to be dealt with,” he added. “As a diaspora community, we have a huge interest in the development of a strong Republic [of Armenia] and having diaspora Armenia relations strengthen while at the same time carrying the historical responsibility of bringing justice to what our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generation dealt with.”