The president of Armenia has all but accused the vice president of the United States of lying about a phone conversation the two men had, reigniting a controversy about the Armenian government’s motivations in pursuing a rapprochement with Turkey.
by Joshua Kucera for EurasiaNet
The controversy began October 26 when an amateur video was posted on the video-sharing website YouTube. The video, the origin of which remains a mystery, shows Vice President Joe Biden talking about the Armenia-Turkey protocols that the US helped broker, and at one point commenting that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told him to “not force” the question of Armenian genocide recognition while Armenia and Turkey were talking about resuming diplomatic ties.
“It was the Armenian president that called me and said; ‘look, do not force this issue now while we are in negotiations.’ We passed, that’s past now,” Biden says in the video.
Sargsyan’s office forcefully denied Biden’s claim in a statement placed on his website the next day: “The President of Armenia did not use the expression ascribed to him in the video – directly or indirectly. On the contrary, in all public appearances and during official meetings, the president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, has been emphasizing the importance of international recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide and has been urging not to excuse the procrastination of the recognition by the ongoing negotiations with Turkey.”
The statement also called on the White House to release recordings of telephone calls between the two men to prove the Armenian president’s point. Securing international recognition of the mass slaughter of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 as genocide has long been a top diplomatic priority for Armenia. Turkey rejects the depiction of the tragic World War I-era events as genocide.
The US side has been silent on the controversy. A spokeswoman for the US State Department referred EurasiaNet.org to the White House; the White House press office did not respond to requests for comment.
The controversy, however, has brought up an uncomfortable issue for advocates of official recognition of the genocide: the perception that Armenians in Armenia do not care as much about genocide recognition as do members of the Armenian diaspora. “That’s a false choice typically thrown out by those laboring against official recognition of the Armenian genocide,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. “It’s absolutely not true.”
While Biden has a reputation in Washington for speaking the truth even when it’s not politically wise, he also can exaggerate to make a point. Most people in Armenia believe Sargsyan rather than Biden, said Tevan Poghosyan, a Yerevan-based political analyst. “I don’t think any Armenian president would think like this,” he said, referring to Sargsyan’s stance on the Genocide recognition. “It’s not in Armenia’s interest.”
One Armenian website, PanArmenian.net, headlined its story on the subject “Why Joe Biden decided to slander Armenian President?”
The most likely explanation for Biden’s comments was that the US vice president misinterpreted Sargsyan’s statement that a deal with Turkey was close as a reason to go slow on genocide recognition, said Emil Sanamyan, the editor of the newspaper Armenian Reporter. In recent months, the reconciliation process between Armenia and Turkey has ground to a standstill.
It is not the first time this issue has arisen. When Biden and Sargsyan spoke last year, rumors that the Armenian government wanted the United States to oppose the genocide resolution, Sanamyan said. The nationalist party Armenian Revolutionary Federation left the government in part as a result of the allegations.
And among Armenian-American groups, some called Sargsyan a “traitor” because of the belief that he “was basically on Turkey’s side, that the Obama administration was eager to move on the genocide issue, but was being held back by Serzh Sargsyan,” Sanamyan said.
But as Turkey held back on the ratification of protocols, many observers have believed that the White House and State Department have tried to use the threat of genocide recognition to force Turkey to move forward.
The video has renewed suspicions of the Armenian government’s actions in the protocols process, said ANCA’s Hamparian. “It’s not clear what exactly was said,” he said. “This is a process that has been conducted by and large behind the backs of nearly all the stakeholders in the process and that is certainly one of its very deep flaws. And with every new revelation we learn more and more troubling things.”
Editor’s note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
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