Monday, March 8, 2010
The first round of the annual "genocide" resolution fight is over. Though there are different interpretations for the close call and controversially managed House Foreign Relations Committee voting, both sides can claim victory following the result.
The Armenians announced that the victory was attained in spite of the powerful lobbying forces of the Turkish government in Washington, and the Turks argue that the close result was a testament to the maturity of the Turkish diaspora in America which proved that it had now learned the rules of the game.
I think even though the resolution passed at the committee last Thursday and that this result declares the Armenians' victory for now, the same result also sent a chill to the powerful Armenian-American diaspora, who always came to see this committee voting as a piece of cake, until this year.
I have contacted many leaders in the Turkish-American community after the committee vote to get a sense how they view the result. I also tried to have the same conversations with leaders among the Armenian-Americans, but I have failed to reach them so far.
One of the questions I asked to those Turkish leaders was whether the Turkish and Armenian communities can ever reconcile, at least some of their differences. Would it be possible to hold panels and discussions, like the one just organized last week in Yerevan between Turkish and Armenian thinkers?
Many of the executives and leaders of the different Turkish associations said they have hopes for closer relationships with the Armenian diaspora, nevertheless they stated that the pressure that the Armenian diaspora utilizes at many levels, including the stiff lobbying in states across America to append the events of the 1915 as a “genocide” in school textbooks, adds daily tension to the relationships between the two communities.
"Being under constant attack was just one of the factors that pumped up Turkish communities to fight harder this year," according to Ali Çınar, one of the vice presidents of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, or ATAA. Çınar said, as the attacks on the Turkish community increased, the grassroots of the Turkish community also started to better organize.
Mr. Günay Evinch, the president of ATAA, said to me in an interview: "The ATAA led many different Turkish associations intellectually and practically. They targeted those Foreign Affairs Committee members across America that potentially can take stances against the resolution."
Evinch said: “We worked systematically this year, did more aggressive fundraising in many states and organize other events. We had meetings at the State Department, with the staff of the National Security Council and various Intelligent Communities to explain Turkey's position at the executive level."
And Evinch argued they were able to send clear messages to the Congress arguing how this bill would damage the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia, and how the Turks see this bill as humiliating.
The president of the Turkish forum, Mr. Kayaalp Büyükataman said in a phone interview while he was in Turkey, "It took sometime to energize the Turkish diaspora in the States, however it seems that the long years of work have now born fruit."
According to Büyükataman, "Turkish-Americans are the most educated and wealthy ethnic segment when one compares them with other people that belong to the different backgrounds."
However, he said, "Until now, we have waited for the Turkish state like a father to do everything for us, but Ankara also asked the Turkish-American community to stay sedated when it comes to these matters in the past. However the views have changed on both sides, and the Turkish officials have come to appreciate our work."
Kaya Boztepe, president of the Federation of Turkish American Associations, echoed the same sentiment in his email and announced that Turkish-American organizations had stopped being on the defensive with the latest 22-23 Thursday tally.
"Turkey's increasing importance makes it more difficult for U.S. administrations to let these resolutions be put on a vote in the House floor," says Kemal Oksuz, president of the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, one of the (Fethullah) Gülen organizations that have been growing rapidly in recent years.
Oksuz was able to give the most detailed report on what happened behind the scenes before and during the resolution debate at the House Committee. Oksuz said, "The lobbying firms that have been paid loads of money in Washington by Turkey actually worsen the image of Turkey at the Congress, rather than helping. Instead, civil grassroots' visits to the Congressional members, especially in their districts, made the biggest differences run up to the Thursday voting."
All of the Turkish leaders in America I talked to past week, complained about Howard Berman's tendentious managing of the vote as head of the committee. According to many firsthand accounts I have heard, Berman, even chased a couple of the committee members to their offices to bring them to vote and especially the junior ones faced the most pressure, some who resisted to come to the voting room until the last minute.
Mahmut Yeter, the executive director of the Midatlantic Turkic American Association, another Turkish-American association that has proximity to the Gülen Movement, said: "Turkish constituencies maintain their close relationships with their Congressional members and host them when it is possible for dinners and award ceremonies, even if some of those representatives were going to vote against to the Turkish position."
Yeter concluded: "With persistence, but while respectfully elaborating their cause, those Turkish grassroots become more convincing and less irrupting than the Armenians.”
He also said, “[They is] more visible Turkish diplomacy in the international arena, [their] work and arguing for Turkey's position to those Congressional members has also become easier."
These Turkish grassroots leaders expect to see more similar resolutions appear, at least until 2015, when the hundredth years of the events of 1915 will be remembered. However, if the resolution does not pass this year amid heavily Democratic Party-dominated Congress and ahead of an election year, with the supporters like Obama and other key cabinet members who voted for similar resolutions in the past, one wonders how will the similar resolutions will pass in the future.
One would think with the effectiveness that the Turkish grassroots organizations have proved this year, the Armenians will have harder times being successful in coming years.
None of the Turkish representatives that I talked to opposed to the idea of having dialogue with the Armenian diaspora, accepting that the both sides cannot settle all the problems. And I think nobody expects from either side to give up on their causes, or change perceptions about the past. However, maybe the time is for closer dialogue and interactions should be near, at least for the newer generations of both communities. This is maybe an early dream – but a dream that will be realized sooner or later.
I will try more to get in touch with those leaders in the Armenian community to reflect their views as well. I hope we can at least open the channels of simple dialogue and the exchange of ideas for now.