US President Joe Biden on Saturday recognized the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide, a watershed moment for descendants of the hundreds of thousands of dead as he defied decades of pressure by Turkey.
Biden became the first US president to use the word genocide in a customary statement on the anniversary, a day after informing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would go ahead with this step and seeking to limit the expected furor from the NATO ally.
“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.
“And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms,” he said.
The statement is a massive victory for Armenia and its extensive diaspora. Starting with Uruguay in 1965, nations including France, Germany, Canada and Russia have recognized the genocide but a US statement has been a paramount goal that proved elusive under other presidents until Biden.
Biden said his statement was “not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Biden made the decision “in a very principled way focused on the merits of human rights, and not for any reason beyond that, including placing blame,” a senior US official said.
Biden took office vowing to put a new focus on human rights and democracy in the wake of his volatile predecessor Donald Trump, who befriended authoritarians and, despite breaking plenty of foreign policy precedents, declined to recognize the Armenian genocide.
Explaining Biden’s thinking, the administration official also alluded to the Democratic president’s outspokenness on systemic racism in the United States.
Across the world, “people are beginning to acknowledge and address and grapple with the painful historical facts in their own countries. It’s certainly something that we are doing here in the United States,” she said.
A century of waiting
As many as 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed from 1915 to 1917 during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which suspected the Christian minority of conspiring with adversary Russia in World War I.
Armenian populations were rounded up and deported into the desert of Syria on death marches where many were shot, poisoned or fell victim to disease, according to accounts at the time by foreign diplomats.
Turkey, which emerged as a secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, acknowledges that 300,000 Armenians may have died but strongly rejects that it was genocide, saying they perished in strife and famine in which many Turks also died.
Erdogan on Thursday told advisors to “defend the truth against those who back the so-called ‘Armenian genocide’ lie,” with his foreign minister warning that the United States would set back relations.
Recognition has been a top priority for the Armenia and Armenian-Americans, with calls for compensation and property restoration over what they call Meds Yeghern — the Great Crime.
Biden’s statement was also expected to heighten appeals from Armenia for greater US support against Turkish-backed neighbor Azerbaijan, which last year humiliated Armenia by taking back swathes of territory seized in the 1990s.
But Biden, whose call to Erdogan to inform him of the genocide recognition was their first conversation since the US leader took office three months ago, has signaled he hopes for limited diplomatic impact.
Biden and Erdogan agreed in their call to meet in June on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, officials said.
Biden has kept Erdogan at arm’s length — a contrast with Trump, whom the Turkish leader reportedly found so amenable that he would call Trump directly on his phone on the golf course.
The US Congress in 2019 voted overwhelmingly to recognize the Armenian genocide but the Trump administration made clear that the official US line had not changed.
Former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, danced around the issue by referencing pre-election statements he made recognizing the genocide and resisted pressure for a statement on the centennial in 2015.
Alan Makovsky, an expert on Turkey at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that the 2019 congressional resolution had “no discernible impact” on US-Turkey relations — and paved the way for Biden to go ahead.
“We’ve seen through experience that concern about Turkey’s reaction was always overblown,” he said.
“Turkey will raise a rhetorical fuss for a few days and perhaps delay acting on some routine requests from the US military.”
Tensions have risen with Turkey in recent years over its purchase of a major air defense system from Russia — the chief adversary of NATO — which under US law could trigger sanctions.
Turkey has also infuriated much of the US political establishment with its incursions against US-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria who helped fight the Islamic State group but are linked to militants inside Turkey.
Biden before taking office called Erdogan an autocrat and voiced support for Turkey’s opposition. His administration has also criticized homophobic statements from those close to the Islamist-oriented Erdogan.
Anger caught in Mari Hovhannisyan’s throat as she demanded Armenia’s leadership resign, more than three months on from a disastrous war that saw swathes of territory lost to Azerbaijan.
“I am six months pregnant but I had to come out,” the 36-year-old told AFP, directing her fury at her country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
“I am against this regime, against the betrayer who sold out our land, our flag, our nation, everything. He should be in jail, he can’t remain in place.”
Around her in Armenia’s capital Yerevan several thousand protesters, waving the national flag, echoed her contempt.
But at the same time, just over a kilometre away on Monday evening, the man they are targeting was defiantly plotting his own way forward in front of a far larger crowd of supporters on the city’s main square.
“If the parliamentary opposition agrees to early elections, we will agree to early elections,” Pashinyan shouted through a megaphone to the chanting throng.
“Only the people can decide who will remain in power.”
The standoff in Armenia is the latest stage of a political crisis fuelled by the fallout of the conflict that erupted last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
After six weeks of violence that claimed around 6,000 lives on all sides, a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement was signed, handing over significant territory to Azerbaijan and allowing for the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
For Armenians it was a devastating reversal from a first war in the early 1990s — upending their decades-long narrative from victors into vanquished in under two months.
“Too much of Armenia, including the military and the government, is still in a state of denial,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think-tank.
“This is why, like the five or seven stages of grief, we can’t go on to mourn or grieve — because we are still in the state of denial.”
– Early elections? –
Charting a way out of the political deadlock looks tricky for this south Caucasus republic of three million people.
Pashinyan, a charismatic 45-year-old ex-journalist who swept to power in peaceful protests in 2018, insists he is ready for early elections — but there is no clear agreement or timeframe.
Last week the prime minister accused the military of attempting a coup when the general staff backed calls for his resignation.
Now Pashinyan is squaring off with President Armen Sarkisian, whose role is largely symbolic, after the head of state refused to sign off on the sacking of the military chief.
Analyst Giragosian said the best way forward is for Pashinyan to seek a new mandate at elections — but that the premier is wary of handing over to any caretaker in the interim and risking the huge majority he holds in parliament.
“In the event of a free and fair election, Pashinyan’s party would likely secure a reduced but still working majority,” Giragosian said.
“The opposition is widely unpopular and deeply discredited. It’s a lack of an alternative candidate and credible rival that tends to strengthen Pashinyan’s position.”
– Old guard strikes back? –
A key part of the opposition appears to come from Armenia’s former leadership, ousted by Pashinyan in the country’s “Velvet Revolution” of 2018.
Critics say the populist leader has failed to make genuine reforms after the rare democratic breakthrough for his ex-Soviet homeland.
But Pashinyan’s supporters accuse the old guard of using the losses during the war as a pretext to gain retribution.
“We don’t want those who robbed Armenia before to return,” 60-year-old English teacher Aida Ghevondyan told AFP.
“They’ve decided that Pashinyan is guilty for the war — but people know those who were in charge before are guilty for getting rich and not building up the army.”
While the political sparring rumbles forward, many in Armenia just seem to be turned off by the wrangling as the country struggles to adapt to the new reality after last year’s conflict.
“For most of the people, there is apathy, fatigue, reluctance and a lack of faith in both of the sides,” said Alexander Iskandaryan, the director of Yerevan’s Caucasus Institute.
And however the situation plays out, the rancour and divisions look set to drag on.
“The turbulence will continue under any scenario — there is no doubt about that,” Iskandaryan said.
Armenia’s President Armen Sarkisian said on Saturday he had refused to sign the prime minister’s order dismissing the chief of the military’s general staff, deepening the country’s political crisis.
“The president of the republic, within the framework of his constitutional powers, returned the draft decree with objections,” the presidency said in a statement, adding that the crisis “cannot be resolved through frequent personnel changes”.
Divisions widened Thursday when Pashinyan defied a call by the military to resign, accused the army of an attempted coup, and ordered the chief of the general staff Onik Gasparyan to be fired.
On Saturday, Armenian President Sarkisian said in a statement that he would not back the sacking.
“The president of the republic, within the framework of his constitutional powers, returned the draft decree with objections,” the presidency said.
It added that the political crisis “cannot be resolved through frequent personnel changes”.
Earlier in the day, 5,000 opposition protesters waving Armenian flags and calling for Pashinyan’s resignation gathered for the third day running outside the parliament in Yerevan.
Some protesters have now set up camp there.
“Today Pashinyan has no support. I call on the security services and the police to join the army, to support the army,” said former premier Vazgen Manukyan, who has been named by the opposition to replace Pashinyan.
“I am sure that the situation will be resolved within two to three days,” he told the crowd.
Pashinyan has faced fierce criticism since he signed a peace deal over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian region that broke from Azerbaijan’s control during a war in the early 1990s.
The agreement was seen as a national humiliation for many in Armenia, but Pashinyan has said he had no choice but to agree or see his country’s forces suffer even bigger losses.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Thursday denounced “an attempted military coup” and called on supporters to take to the streets, after the country’s top brass demanded his resignation.
“I consider the statement of the General Staff of the Armed Forces an attempted military coup. I invite all of our supporters to Republic Square right now,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to a central square in the capital Yerevan.
Pashinyan also fired the head of the general staff Onik Gasparyan, after his office released a statement demanding the prime minister and his cabinet step down after the sacking of deputy chief of staff Tigran Khachatryan on Wednesday.
Khachatryan had ridiculed claims by Pashinyan that Iskander missiles supplied by Russia — Armenia’s main military ally — had failed to hit targets during last year’s war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The statement said the firing was made “exclusively on the basis of the personal feelings and ambitions” of Pashinyan.
Pashinyan and his government “are not capable of taking adequate decisions,” the statement said, denouncing “attacks by the authorities aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces.”
Accused of mishandling the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinyan has resisted pressure to step down since November, when he signed a Russian-brokered peace deal that ended six weeks of fighting that had claimed some 6,000 lives.
Under the deal Armenia ceded to Azerbaijan swathes of the region’s territories.
Opposition parties have since staged mass rallies demanding his resignation and were also making calls for supporters to rally on Thursday.
Villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh set their houses on fire Saturday before fleeing to Armenia ahead of a weekend deadline that will see parts of the territory handed over to Azerbaijan as part of a peace agreement.
Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan that was controlled by Armenian separatists for decades began a mass exodus this week after it was announced Azerbaijan would regain control on Sunday.
Fighting between the separatists backed by Armenian troops and the Azerbaijan army erupted in late September and raged for six weeks, leaving more than 1,400 dead and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
In the village of Charektar, on the border with the neighbouring district of Martakert which is to remain under Armenian control, at least six houses were on fire Saturday morning with thick plumes of gray smoke rising over the valley, an AFP journalist saw.
“This is my house, I can’t leave it to the Turks,” as Azerbaijanis are often called by Armenians, said one resident as he threw burning wooden planks and rags soaked in gasoline into a completely empty house.
“Everybody is going to burn down their house today… We were given until midnight to leave,” he said.
On Friday at least 10 houses were burned in and around Charektar.
The ex-Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after previous efforts by Russia, France and the United States to get a ceasefire fell through.
A key part of the peace deal includes Armenia’s return of Kalbajar, as well as the Aghdam district by November 20 and the Lachin district by December 1, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.
Russian peacekeepers began deploying to Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday as part of the terms of the accord and took control of a key transport artery connecting Armenia to the disputed province.
Russian military officials said the mission consisting of nearly 2,000 troops would put in place 16 observation posts in mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor.
Marina Khachatryan is not the only person in ex-Soviet Armenia who believes the coronavirus is a government conspiracy.
But her large following online means her scepticism has a wide, potentially even dangerous reach.
The unemployed surgeon runs the Facebook page of a local group critical of the government’s health policies, where thousands of followers are treated to a regular dose of false claims about the pandemic.
“(The authorities) want to use their own people as experimental animals to test a vaccine,” said Khachatryan, who also believes the virus was created in a laboratory.
The Armenian government has come under fire for responding too slowly to the pandemic, which has seen the country’s prime minister infected, quarantine rules ignored and hospitals overwhelmed.
But critics also say authorities are failing to stamp out viral disinformation like Khachatryan’s posts that fuel the pandemic and undermine lockdown rules.
“Quarantine didn’t work in Armenia,” virologist Nuneh Bakunts told AFP, because people believed disinformation online and didn’t “take the threat seriously.”
Claims that the virus is a global conspiracy led by the US business magnate Bill Gates and that 5G telecommunication technology is being used to spread the infection are commonplace in the country.
A recent investigation by the UK-based website openDemocracy found that controversial local news portal Medmedia.am was spreading “incredibly dangerous” virus disinformation.
– ‘False rumours’ –
One article described vaccines currently being developed as “biological weapons” and warned Armenians against participating in vaccination programmes.
The post was viewed at least 131,000 times and had 28,000 Facebook likes — a huge number for a country of just three million people.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who announced on his birthday on June 1 that he had tested positive for the virus, has admitted failings in his government’s response to the crisis.
He conceded earlier this month that overwhelmed hospitals can no longer cope with the number of coronavirus patients and that people are dying due to a lack of intensive care beds.
But he has placed blame for widespread quarantine violations on “false rumours that the pandemic is a fiction”.
Armenians largely ignored a lockdown to contain the outbreak imposed in late March, with many continuing to gather in public without mandatory face masks.
“Armenian media is full of false information about the coronavirus and that harms our fight against the pandemic,” government spokeswoman Mane Gegorgyan told AFP.
Analysts said, however, that the government had also sent mixed messages and unclear guidelines to the public.
– ‘Dangerous disinformation’ –
“Officials were calling for the wearing of face masks, but didn’t wear them themselves until recently,” analyst Samvel Martirosyan said.
Adding to that, rights campaigner Zhanna Aleksanyan told AFP that the government’s response to false virus news had fallen short, and that it had “only recently engaged in a dialogue with the public about dangerous disinformation.”
The Caucasus nation has seen new infections rapidly increase in recent weeks to a total 17,064 with 285 coronavirus deaths, while the situation looks set to further deteriorate.
Pashinyan last week compared the pandemic to “hell” and said the real number of people infected could be as high as 100,000.
Officials have scrapped the idea of reimposing the lockdown they lifted on May 4 citing frequent violations and they have yet to devise a strategy to tackle the disinformation that undermines anti-virus guidelines.
The government “doesn’t have a recipe ready against this,” said Gegorgyan, the government spokeswoman, referring to false news about the pandemic.
“What we can do is to have an open dialogue with people.”
Hospitals in Armenia can no longer cope with the number of coronavirus patients, the country’s prime minister warned on Thursday.
Nikol Pashinyan, who has himself tested positive, said there could be as many as 20,000 people infected but showing no symptoms in the country, which has so far registered 11,221 cases and 176 deaths.
The health ministry said an additional 68 patients who tested positive for the virus had died from other illnesses.
Last week, health officials warned that intensive care beds would soon be reserved for patients with the best chance of survival.
“I have got bad news,” Pashinyan said in a video statement on his Facebook page. “The epidemiological situation is worsening and medical facilities cannot timely hospitalise all the coronavirus patients who need (medical treatment).”
Syuzan Patvakanyan has been searching for her daughter ever since doctors in post-Soviet Armenia forced her to give her up as a baby nearly two decades ago.
Now 35, she shared her story with AFP as the authorities this month detained the country’s chief obstetrician-gynaecologist, the head of an orphanage and other officials as part of a probe into an alleged black-market adoption scheme believed to have been operating for years.
Patvakanyan accused the detained chief gynaecologist, Razmik Abramyan, and other doctors of pressuring her to give up her baby.
She was just a teenager when she “fell madly in love” with a man five years her senior, she said.
After the 16-year-old gave birth to a little girl, doctors threatened to report the baby’s father to police for having sex with a minor and coerced Patvakanyan into signing a consent form to hand over their daughter Stella.
“I cried, I didn’t want to do it,” Patvakanyan said in an interview, tears streaming down her face.
She signed the papers under pressure but three days later she returned to the maternity ward to take Stella home.
The baby girl was no longer there however.
The doctors claimed she had been sent to an orphanage in the country’s second-largest city of Gyumri. But the young mum could not locate her there either.
“We realised that the swaddled baby had been sold right out of the hospital,” the distraught woman said.
Patvakanyan appears to be one of dozens of women caught up in an underground baby-selling network that is now the subject of an official investigation in the impoverished ex-Soviet country.
In December, investigators said they had detained Abramyan, as well as the heads of a maternity ward and an orphanage in the capital Yerevan.
The chief gynaecologist was released several days later, sparking public outrage.
According to his lawyer, Abramyan dismisses the claims as “unfounded and absurd” and insists he had nothing to do with the adoptions.
The lawyer, Samvel Dilbandyan, confirmed Abramyan had helped to deliver Stella, but could not be expected to remember every birth he was involved in.
“It’s been 20 years, how can he remember her?” Dilbandyan told AFP.
‘More powerful than drugs mafia’
Armenia’s pro-reform leader Nikol Pashinyan has ordered a thorough investigation into the alleged scheme, which he said is believed to have been operating “for many years”.
“How could such a scheme exist in Armenia?” Pashinyan asked at a government meeting this month.
Marat Kostanyan, a lawyer who has represented Patvakanyan since 2013, claims the network was vast and involved high-ranking officials and police, as well as staff at maternity wards and orphanages.
“The mafia selling children is more powerful than the drugs mafia,” Kostanyan said.
“This criminal network has turned the country into a hatchery to produce babies.”
Despite all his efforts, there has been little progress in Patvakanyan’s case, the lawyer said.
“As far as I know, no one has managed to achieve justice and get their babies back,” he said.
Separately, Armenia’s security service said in November it had exposed a criminal network that helped Italians adopt more than 30 babies in recent years.
It said that between 2016 and 2018 several young women who had wanted to terminate their pregnancies were instead forced to carry the babies to term and then give them up for adoption.
“In some cases, the frightened mothers were told their newborn babies were sick,” the security service said.
Deputy labour minister Zhanna Andreasyan said officials had started looking more closely into adoptions after noticing that four times as many children went to foreigners rather than to locals.
All adoptions have since been suspended while the investigation is ongoing.
Armenia, a South Caucasus country of fewer than three million people, has also pledged to abolish orphanages by 2023, instead reuniting children with their biological parents or finding new homes for them.
In a 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said that thousands of Armenian children were “needlessly” separated from their parents due to disability or poverty and placed in institutions.
More than 90 percent of children in residential institutions in the country have at least one living parent, it said.
According to Armenia’s labour ministry, fewer than 650 children currently live in orphanages. More than 70 percent of these have disabilities, according to UNICEF.
‘I will never stop’
Patvakanyan said she still hopes to find her daughter.
“I love my Stella very much, I miss her very much, I see her in my dreams. She comes to me and says: ‘Mum, I live nearby, don’t cry so hard’.”
She said she would not marry or have another child until she gets her daughter back.
Patvakanyan has bought a small plot of land where she wants to grow a garden for her long-lost child. She buys her gifts. She intently studies the faces of strangers.
“I’ll never stop searching for her,” she said, weeping. “I will look for her even when my hair turns white.”
Turkey on Wednesday summoned the US ambassador to Ankara over a resolution passed by the US House of Representatives officially recognising the “Armenian genocide”, officials at the Turkish foreign ministry said.
The US Ambassador to Ankara David Satterfield was summoned to the foreign ministry over “a resolution that lacks any historical or legal basis” and a bill that imposes sanctions over Turkey’s military operation in Syria, the officials said.