Wagering on the question of genocide

March 21, 2009
Source: The Hill (Washington, D.C.)

By Bridget Johnson

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has introduced a controversial measure to recognize mass killings nearly a century ago in Armenia as genocide, while an Armenian betting website wagered on whether President Obama will dare to use the word.

The resolution, which comes as Obama prepares to travel to Turkey for an April 6-7 visit that will include a forum on fostering dialogue between the West and the Muslim world, calls the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915 "genocide." Turkey blames the deaths on civil upheaval toward the end and directly after World War I, saying that 300,000 Armenians were killed and at least as many Turks.

Schiff's resolution, which was introduced with 76 bipartisan cosponsors ranging from Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It calls on the president to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

Schiff authored the resolution with Reps. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

“The facts of history are clear, well documented, and non-negotiable," Schiff said in a statement. “...It has never served our national interest to become complicit in the denial of genocide, and it never will. While there are still some survivors left, we have a compelling moral obligation to speak plainly about the past.”

Schiff's district includes Glendale, Calif., the city with the largest population of Armenians in the United States, which regularly marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day each April 24 with commemorations and calls for the U.S to recognize the killings as genocide.

And one Armenian betting site has been taking wagers on just what words Obama will use a little over a month from now, after his trip to Turkey is long over and Schiff's resolution proceeds at an yet-unknown pace.

The website PanARMENIAN.net reported Saturday that Vivaro bookmakers had been taking bets on whether Obama will actually use the word "genocide" when commemorating April 24. Odds were just 1 to 30 for Obama saying "genocide," while odds were 3 to 2 for Obama choosing cautious terminology to mark the day of remembrance.

The Armenian news site reported that the wager had been taken down from Vivaro's site as of their story.

Obama does face a political gamble, though, in choosing where to fall on the Schiff resolution.

Schiff and other co-authors of the resolution, which had a predecessor that didn't make it to a vote two years ago under pressure from the Bush administration, wrote to Obama last week, reminding him of his past stances in recognizing the killings as genocide.

In a Jan. 19, 2008, campaign statement, Obama vowed to do just that should he become president. "As a U.S. Senator, I have stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide," he wrote. "Two years ago, I criticized the Secretary of State for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, after he properly used the term 'genocide' to describe Turkey's slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915. I shared with Secretary Rice my firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.

"An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide."

But his efforts to build a stronger relationship with Turkey -- and likely use the secular Muslim nation as a conduit to reach out to Iran -- may result in a changed agenda.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan responded to the bill's introduction in a TV interview Wednesday, reported Hurriyet Daily News. "The complete normalization of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey ties will create a brand-new geopolitical situation in the southern Caucasus," Babacan said. "A decision or a statement to be made by a third country [on the 1915 killings] will cause harm. While we are looking into the future from a broader perspective, we believe that any interference by a third country is very wrong.

"We hope that an irrational step will not be taken," Babacan said. "We are openly speaking with our American friends. We hope no wrong steps will be taken."