“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian Genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday, commemorating Armenian Remembrance Day.
Turkey rebuffed the statement immediately, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the Armenian issue has been “politicized by third parties.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara “entirely rejects” Biden’s decision and added that the move would “open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship” with the US.
“After more than 100 years of this past suffering, instead of exerting sincere efforts to completely heal the wounds of the past and build the future together in our region, the US president’s statement will not yield any results other than polarizing the nations and hindering peace and stability in our region,” Cavusoglu said.
At issue are atrocities against ethnic Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, when an estimated 1.5 million were killed or deported by the Young Turks movement, starting in 1915. The Turkish government has denied the genocide for more than a century, saying Armenians were resettled – not exterminated.
Given the diplomatic sensitivities over the issue and Ankara’s geopolitical importance as a strategic NATO ally, past US presidents have largely tiptoed around the issue. In fact, John Evans was fired as US ambassador to Armenia by the George W. Bush administration for referring to the massacre as a genocide.
Barack Obama criticized the firing during his 2008 presidential campaign and pledged to recognize the genocide, but he stopped short of keeping that promise during his eight years in office. Both Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, used the Armenian term, “Meds Yeghern,” meaning “great crime.”
Biden used both terms. “We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history,” he said.
“And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hailed Biden’s move as a “powerful step on the way to acknowledging the truth, historical justice” and said it provides “invaluable support” for descendants of the victims. He added, “The recognition of the Armenian genocide by the US is a much-needed message to the international community, which comes to reaffirm the primacy of human rights and values in international relations.”
For decades, Armenians and the Armenian diaspora have pressed for the US government to officially recognize the genocide, as Russia has since at least 1995. Dozens of other nations, including Germany and France, also have done so. The US House and Senate passed resolutions acknowledging the genocide in 2019.
A Biden administration official reportedly said that Turkey remains a critical NATO ally and that the US desires a strong relationship with Ankara. Biden’s statement was meant to honor victims, not to assign blame, the official said.
However, the US-Turkey relationship has unquestionably deteriorated. Biden didn’t speak with Erdogan until three months after taking office, and when he did call his Turkish counterpart on Friday, it was to notify him of his upcoming statement on the genocide. The two presidents also agreed to meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June.