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Armenia and Politics of the Word 'Genocide'

Most historians agree that the massacre, deportation and death of more than 1 million Armenians in the Turkish Ottoman Empire that began 100 years ago this month was a genocide. But mention the word “genocide” in Washington, in the context of Armenia, and the level of discomfort is palpable.

Administration officials decline to comment, pro-Armenia politicians rush to the podium, scholars refer to books, Armenians tell heartbreaking stories of trauma, and the Turkish government rejects the issue altogether.

Hope Harrison, a history professor at George Washington University, said Washington has avoided using the word “genocide” in order to keep its strategic relations with Turkey as smooth as possible.

It is, Harrison said, “one of many debates in the U.S. government of principles and beliefs versus realpolitik and security.”

From 1915 to 1923, Armenians of the Ottoman empire - from which rose today’s Turkey - were deported or massacred in the hundreds of thousands, and their culture was almost erased from the land where they had lived for thousands of years. It was a trauma that many Armenians have never forgotten.

'Part of their identity'

“It’s something that’s absolutely part of their nature and part of their identity,” explained Ronald Suny, professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan, referring to the Armenian diaspora. “I think it’s unavoidable.”

But Thomas de Waal, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said 100 years later, all those involved in the debate have become hostage to the word “genocide” itself.

“As a result of that, people have lost sight of the bigger issue, which is: what justice is owed to the Armenians in 1915? How do we promote normalization between Armenia and Turkey? How do we persuade Turkey to open up to its past and look at these issues?” de Waal asked.

The word genocide was invented in 1944, almost 30 years after the massacres happened. In 1948, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the word entered the world’s political vocabulary.

Armenians believe it defined the experience of their people.

The U.S. government has recognized that more than 1 million Armenians died, but State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf this April again stopped short of using the word “genocide.”

"The president and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact and mourned the fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire," Harf said.

President Barack Obama called the centennial "a solemn moment," in a statement released by the White House late Wednesday.

"It calls on us to reflect on the importance of historical remembrance, and the difficult but necessary work of reckoning with the past. I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed," Obama said. "A full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all our interests. Peoples and nations grow stronger, and build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future, by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of the past.

"We welcome the expression of views by Pope Francis, Turkish and Armenian historians, and the many others who have sought to shed light on this dark chapter of history," his statement continued.

Diplomatic spat

In contrast, Pope Francis this year became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to publicly declare what happened as a "genocide," sparking a diplomatic spat with Turkey.

As de Waal points out, the word itself has become so problematic and so politicized, it has aggravated Armenian-Turkish relations and other nations' relations with both.

The United States at one time did use the word genocide in reference to the Armenian experience. That changed under President Ronald Reagan, when a Turkish consul to the United States was killed by an Armenian terrorist in Reagan’s home state of California in 1982.

From then on, de Waal said, as far as Reagan was concerned, the Turks were on America’s side on the three issues that he cared about: terrorism, the Soviet Union and Israel.

“Ronald Reagan, therefore, embraced the Turks on those issues and pushed away the idea of an Armenian genocide, and that I think has set U.S. policy ever since," he said. "Even though many, many people call it a genocide, that line was drawn back in 1982, and the United States has found it very difficult to reset the policy ever since then.”

For Armenians in the diaspora, the 1915 experience is a key issue and an essential political question. For Armenians in the newly independent Republic of Armenia, the perception is different.

'Bit of a rift'

“I think that what we may see already is a bit of a rift, or at least a distinction between what the government of the country of Armenia would like to see on the one hand, and what the Armenia diaspora would like to see on the other hand, because there is some significant impulse in the region to normalize relations between the country of Turkey and the country of Armenia,” said David Pollock of The Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

Turkey recently has become much more open to admitting that a terrible thing happened to the Armenians.

And compromise is emerging in Washington, too: While Republican Representative Robert Dold has called for a full recognition of the Armenian masacres as genocide, his colleague, Representative Curt Clawson, has reached out to fellow lawmakers to support a resolution that would promote “peace and understanding” between the nations.

De Waal, who has written extensively on Armenia, said the focus should be less on how the United States describes the historical facts, and more on restoring relations between Turkey and Armenia.

“The focus should really be on facilitating that, and if you want to do that, I don’t think you start with the word genocide. You start by discussing the histories, the massacres, maybe you come round eventually to the word genocide, but at the moment, the word genocide is so toxic that it shuts down the conversation. You can’t really start a conversation with the word genocide,” he said.

More than 20 nations around the world have recognized the mass killings as genocide.

Vivian Chakarian contributed to this report.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.