Finally Recognition…Recalling the Long Road

April 24, 2021 will forever hold special meaning for American Armenians. Armenians are loyal and contributing citizens to this country. It began with the survivor generation who came to these shores expecting little except the opportunity to be free and share in the American Dream. As survivors of genocide, they wanted their country to stand in recognition of this crime against the Armenian people. Their voices were never silent but occupied with reestablishing our identity in this country in what became known as a part of the greater diaspora. In 1965, the “great reawakening” happened as Armenians worldwide commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Genocide with the beginning of newfound activism. By the late 1960s, our “cause” was clearly focused on the first of the “R’s” with worldwide recognition efforts. The identity of the diaspora became synonymous with the campaign to awaken ourselves and the world to recognize what had been almost forgotten. Uruguay was the first and others followed, but the United States was absent. This was a disappointing dilemma for proud and loyal Armenian American citizens. The recognition of the Genocide seems perfectly aligned with the values of America, but the reality of current geopolitics created a different response.

I was fortunate to be raised during the time when our advocacy was initiated in the United States. In the late 60s and early 70s, the AYF witnessed the emergence of political activism. The youth of America had become engaged in the Vietnam experience, while many young Armenians applied their energy to the cause of justice for the Genocide. We were in our late teens, full of passion and short on experience, but our hearts were pure. We were lucky to have grandparents who were survivors and inspired us to take action. We felt the need to represent them and those not yet born. Armenia at that time was under Soviet rule, and ironically most of the “liberation” dialogue was directed at lost Western Armenia. The causes of this were simple. Most of the Armenians here were rooted in Western Armenia, and the Genocide was the central theme. Always at the bow of our ship was the need for recognition. The AYF established programs focused on education (seminars, retreats and lectures), public awareness (demonstrations and rallies) and legislative relations (Congress, state legislatures). Resources were limited, and many members were also in college. But it was a promising start and brought the Hai Tahd into reality for the youth. It was bound with rewards as our identity as Armenians in the diaspora was defined.

Soon in 1972, the Armenian Assembly was formed as a non-partisan advocacy group that blossomed into many corners of the community. Around the same time, the ARF expanded the ANCA as a grassroots advocacy group that established an activist presence in many communities. Both groups established offices in Washington and brought a new level of professionalism to our recognition efforts in American political circles. This was a remarkable period of growth as our advocacy was relentless in chipping away at American ambivalence and opposition to recognizing the facts. Since the 70s, American foreign policy as it relates to the Genocide has evolved. There was a time when American politicians would openly question the veracity of the Genocide. They questioned the facts, and many agreed with the Turkish position of denial. It is a tribute to the tenacious work of our advocacy groups, such as the ANCA and AAA, along with the emergence of volumes of research and scholarship in America, that in the last 20 years, the facts have not been seriously debated. We should never underestimate the significance of this accomplishment; advocacy and scholarship are a powerful partnership.

For the last few decades, the recognition issue has been essentially aligned with the use of one word: “genocide.” Countless US Presidents have attempted to honor the memory of the victims by articulating virtually every possible phrase to describe our tragedy and avoiding the term “genocide.” Complicated ties with Turkey have prevented the United States from formal recognition in deference to NATO and bilateral relations with Ankara. Today, we see Turkey as an Islamist nationalist dictatorship under Erdogan, but 10 to 15 years ago, Turkey was viewed in America as a moderate Muslim nation and an important partner in this complex part of the world. But Turkey’s expansionist and duplicitous policies have created conflict with Europe and the United States that has opened windows for recognizing the Genocide. Most European countries have been partners in recognition as Turkey’s EU membership campaign drifted. In 2019, the efforts in the United States gained momentum with the historic Congressional passage of recognition. Many Congressional leaders had previously blocked or ignored similar efforts. The timing was favorable, and our advocacy was ready to take advantage of the political environment. Years of investing in credible legislative relationships—what the Turks refer to as the “Armenian lobby”—was showing a substantial return.

This past Saturday, we witnessed the culmination of decades of small successes and setbacks. It is clear that this was a decision made by the Biden administration, but nothing would have happened if the Armenian nation had not displayed remarkable and sustained resiliency in pursuit of this goal. The passion of the Armenian people, as demonstrated by the grandsons and granddaughters of the survivor generation, has impressed the American political community.

Stepan Piligian’s granddaughter Anoush Piligian participating in the April 24, 2021 march in Boston, Mass. (Photo provided by Stepan Piligian)

On Saturday, while participating in the commemorative march and program in Boston, I was emotionally overwhelmed by the images before me of hundreds of young Armenians participating with zeal, knowledge and commitment. The organizing committee, which did a superb job, consisted primarily of young Armenian women and men. One hundred and six years after the start of the Turkish answer to the “Armenian question,” we have an emerging generation (three to four generations removed) who are educated, prepared and committed. This is why the truth has prevailed and our journey continues with success. I tearfully watched my not-yet four-year-old granddaughter carry an Artsakh flag with serious determination. I discovered an incredible connection between the destruction of families during the Genocide and the presence of entire families at the event on Saturday evening. The scattered seeds not only survived but have emerged as talented and resourceful.

It is important to offer a few words on the significance of Biden’s announcement. We should do our utmost to leave our American political views at the door and simply accept this victory with gratitude. There have been some social media comments about what should have been said or not. It is my view that the task at hand was for the US to recognize the atrocities as genocide. For the moment, everything else is secondary. The work continues. The psychological impact of this decision on our community is significant. Survivors of a crime suffer the horrific experience of loss and, in our case, the additional indignity of denial. The absence of recognition places the victim community in a place of trauma as the world either denies or forgets that an unpunished crime occurred. The immediate impact of our host nations recognizing the Genocide is that it restores personal identity and dignity. The impact of Armenians living as productive citizens in a country that has refused to formally recognize a crime that has impacted every family and the psyche of our diaspora has been overwhelming.

The partisan politics have no meaningful value. A Republican President mentioned it briefly in the 80s and a Democrat President completed the formal recognition this year. We are grateful to both and will build on this foundation. This is not the time to overanalyze the content of Biden’s recognition. The goal was to endorse the fact that the atrocities were genocide. The work is not complete, and the journey continues. The political and legal implications of Biden’s comments are significant. Beyond the immediate benefits to the Armenian nation, “genocide” is a legal term that describes a particular crime. The host of nations, now including the United States, will lend credibility to the continued pursuit of justice with reparations. This foundation of recognition will become increasingly important as we shift into a legal phase in the coming years. In the short term, the political implications are very important. Clearly Turkey is unhappy about this change in US policy, but will be tempered in its response given the political climate. The Biden administration has already demonstrated far less tolerance for human rights abuses. Turkey has been accumulating negative points in this regard with its expansionist activity in Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Aegean and the Caucasus. Further alienation could lead to American sanctions which would have a devastating impact on an already weak economy. Turkey may have overplayed its hand with the West as it relates to Russia. Only Erdogan would have the audacity to say they have no problems with Armenia and Armenians just months after their criminal role with men, equipment, command guidance, jihadists and illegal weapons in the Artsakh War. Trusting his duplicitous words is unlikely in Washington.

It is now time to connect our newfound support in the executive and congressional branches to the reality of Armenia today. Samatha Powers, a strong advocate of Armenian rights who has apologized for the failure during the Obama administration, is now responsible for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She is in a unique position to direct more financial support to Armenia. With both branches openly supporting our rights and seeking to alter the American passive role in the OSCE Minsk Group under the previous administration, our advocacy groups will be zeroing in on the Turkish/Azeri crimes in the recent war, stopping aid to Azerbaijan and increasing assistance to Armenia. Additionally, a strong American presence with France in the OSCE Minsk Group to negotiate a permanent solution that recognizes the self-determination rights of the Armenians of Artsakh is critical. It is our hope that an administration that steers America into a more active and human rights sensitive foreign policy will serve peace loving and democratic nations such as Armenia/Artsakh. It is another milestone on the road to justice, but today we can say that the most powerful nation and leader of the free world has let the truth prevail over the attempts to extinguish history. We must continue on this journey, but today we pause and thank President Biden for honoring his pledge and standing with the truth. Enjoy this moment. You’ve earned it. Take a moment to remember our grandparents and other patriots who are now asleep. They are the ones who blazed the trail in the lean days and kept the voice of the victims alive. Teach your children the value of continuing the struggle, for that is the formula for our success. Don’t diminish the importance of this moment with words of what is missing. Celebrate the victories on the long road to justice.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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