Obama avoids saying 'genocide' while in Turkey

The president reiterates that his views on the Armenian genocide in Ottoman times have not changed, but doesn't use the term as he focuses on helping normalize Turkey's ties with Armenia.

April 7, 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

By Christi Parsons and Laura King

Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey, and Ankara, Turkey - President Obama, steering a delicate course on an explosive issue, said Monday his views on the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century have not changed since he declared it a "genocide" last year, but he avoided using that term in front of his Turkish hosts.

Instead, Obama emphasized the need to improve relations between Turkey and Armenia, and pointed to hopes for a breakthrough to ease long-standing tensions.

"If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, I think the whole world will encourage them," Obama told reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

By refraining from calling the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 a genocide, Obama for the moment avoided offending a country whose help U.S. officials need in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. At the same time, he avoided infuriating his Armenian American supporters.

But Obama also contributed to the suspense surrounding a likely presidential proclamation expected in time for April 24, the annual Armenian remembrance day.

U.S. presidents usually issue statements deploring the mass killings without calling them genocide. Armenian American organizations are urging Obama to make good on his campaign pledge.

"We fully expect President Obama to honor his commitment and reaffirm the Armenian genocide," the Armenian Assembly, a U.S. Armenian advocacy group, said in a statement.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul emphasized that Turkey was willing to open its archives to historians investigating the subject and allow a joint commission to draw conclusions.

"It is not a political but an historic issue," he said. "That's why we should let historians discuss the matter." Obama administration officials said delicate talks are continuing between Turkey and Armenia over normalizing relations. Late in the evening at Istanbul's Dolmabahce Palace, the president met with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia to urge a quick agreement.

Obama's remarks Monday, issued as he stood beside Gul, appeared carefully calibrated. Though he didn't utter the word "genocide" or press Gul to address the issue, he pointedly reaffirmed previous remarks on the subject.

In 2008, Obama said "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."

Three years ago, Obama criticized the Bush administration for firing John Evans, then-ambassador to Armenia, after Evans used the term "genocide" to describe the slaughter.

After a private meeting with Gul in Ankara, Obama said at the news conference that he hadn't changed his views.

"My views are on the record and I have not changed views," Obama said. "What I have been very encouraged by is news that under President Gul's leadership, you are seeing a series of negotiations, a process, in place between Armenia and Turkey to resolve a whole host of long-standing issues, including this one."

Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic ties. Gul last year became the first modern Turkish leader to visit Armenia, attending a World Cup qualifying match between the teams of the two countries. Other events in recent years, though, have brought wrenching reminders of the two neighbors' historic enmity.

In January 2007, a prominent Armenian editor, Hrant Dink, was gunned down outside his newspaper's office in central Istanbul, a killing that shocked the country. The assailant was a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist.

Before the assassination, nationalistic websites had expressed outrage over Dink's repeated calls for Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide and ensure that its Armenian minority did not face persecution.

U.S. Armenian groups expressed disappointment over Obama's comments in Ankara, but did not criticize the president. Obama "missed a valuable opportunity to honor his public pledge to recognize the Armenian genocide," said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

The Turkish Coalition of America said it was "encouraged" by Obama's remarks concerning Turkish-Armenian relations, but didn't comment on the genocide issue.

In Istanbul, Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Bilgi University, said he thought Obama had handled the Armenian issue deftly.

"He expressed the view that problems arising from the past can be resolved, and in a clear way," he said.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.