ISTANBUL, March 29 - A planned vote in Congress that would classify the widespread killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government early in the 20th century as genocide is threatening to make bilateral relations unusually tense.
The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, backs the resolution and at first wanted a vote in April. But under Turkish pressure, Bush administration figures have lobbied for the Democrats in charge of Congress to drop the measure.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sent strong letters of protest to her and to Representative Tom Lantos, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which has not set a date for the vote. “That has had an impact,” said Lynne Weil, a Lantos spokeswoman, referring to the letters. Copies were also sent to Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader.
Turkey vehemently denies the genocide, in which 1.5 million Armenians died during a period of several years, beginning in 1915. It contends that the deaths occurred in the chaos of war, as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart, and that many Turks were also killed when Armenians sided with Russian forces in the hope of claiming territory in eastern Turkey.
But many Armenians have sought acknowledgment from nations around the world that the deaths amounted to systematic genocide at Ottoman hands. So far, parliaments of more than 15 countries have agreed. France and Switzerland went further and called for criminal charges against those who deny it.
A vote in Congress would be purely symbolic, but Turks have warned that it would be felt as a bitter slap, and could cause enormous public pressure on the government in Ankara to chill its cooperation with Washington, which has strong military ties to Turkey, a NATO member.
In an effort to highlight Turkey’s opposition to a Congressional resolution, many high-ranking Turkish officials have visited Washington in recent months. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, one of them, says that the damage would be very deep if the resolution passed.
“It is only natural that the Turkish public who closely follow the issue would also react to this strongly,” Mr. Gul said in a telephone interview this week. “As the elected government of democratic Turkey, we would not be able to remain indifferent. However, I am confident that common sense would prevail at the Congress.”
In Turkey on Thursday, the government held an opening ceremony for a museum in a restored Armenian church near the city of Van in eastern Turkey that dates from the year 941 and is considered one of the most precious symbols of the Armenian presence in Anatolia. The renovation was undertaken as a major step to mend ties with Armenians.
Mr. Gates and Ms. Rice, in joint letters, spoke sympathetically of “the horrendous suffering that ethnic Armenians endured” and called for more study of the events. But they also noted that when the French National Assembly voted last year, the Turkish military responded by deciding to “cut all contacts with the French military and terminated defense contracts under negotiation.”
The letters, dated March 7, are posted at foreignaffairs.house.gov/110/
A similar reaction now by the Turkish government, the letters warned, “could harm American troops in the field” and constrain the American military in any number of ways.
Mr. Gates chose a meeting of the American-Turkish Council in Washington, a business group that promotes American-Turkish cooperation on trade, security and cultural matters, to make a major policy speech on Tuesday. Not only did he describe Turkey as an ally that “I have long believed to be undervalued and underappreciated,” but he made a point of arguing against the genocide resolution.
“Our two nations should oppose measures and rhetoric that needlessly and destructively antagonize each other,” Mr. Gates said Tuesday.
Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, warned in testimony to Congress in mid-March that Turkish wrath could be so strong that Turkey might bar American access to Incirlik Air Base, in eastern Turkey, through which 74 percent of United States military air cargo destined for Iraq passes.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry also chided the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday for supporting a resolution that would condemn the killing in January of Hrant Dink, an editor who was a voice for ethnic Armenians in Turkey.
Asked about the warnings from the two administration officials, Representative Adam Schiff of California, a lead sponsor of the House resolution, said, “I don’t see how we can have the moral authority that we need to condemn the genocide going on in Darfur, if we’re unwilling to recognize other genocides that have taken place.”
Similar Congressional votes have been deferred in the past after intense lobbying. But with strong support for the resolution from Ms. Pelosi, and lingering resentment in Congress over Turkey’s refusal to let United States forces use Turkish soil for the invasion of Iraq, the bill’s prospects may have grown.
“It has 183 sponsors,” said Elizabeth Chouldjian of the Armenian National Committee of America. “It is very likely that if it came up for a vote right now, it would pass.”
Fueled partly by anger over the Iraq war, a positive view of the United States among Turks plunged from 52 percent in 2000 to a low of 12 percent last year, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey.
In Istanbul, Etyen Mahcupyan, an intellectual of Armenian descent who succeeded Mr. Dink at the weekly Agos, said that foreign pressure on Turkey would only fuel extreme nationalism.
“Turkish people are just beginning to realize that there are things they were not taught in schools, so we are curious and willing to talk about not only the Armenian issue but also other things freely,” Mr. Mahcupyan said. “It is not fair to expect a society to accept the truths of other societies without having the chance to discuss them first.”
Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Brian Knowlton from Washington.
By SEBNEM ARSU and BRIAN KNOWLTON
Published : March 30, 2007
CET ARTICLE VOUS A PLU ? POUR AIDER LE SITE A VIVRE...