Armenian Eyes, Ears on US Genocide Vote

The Associated Press
Friday, October 19, 2007; 2:16 PM

YEREVAN, Armenia -- The chatter these days in Yerevan's Anahit Deluxe beauty salon isn't only about hairstyles, celebrity gossip or the coming winter _ it's also about whether the U.S. Congress will agree that the World War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide.

"If it passes, I'll treat all my girlfriends and customers that day to candy," said the salon's owner, Anait Gezalian.

Thousands of miles from Washington, U.S. House Resolution No. 106 is the talk of the town for Yerevan and the rest of this landlocked former Soviet republic of rugged highlands and grinding poverty.

If Congress recognizes the killings as genocide, it could be a cathartic moment for Armenians. They have striven for decades to gain wide international recognition for their view of the long-ago bloodshed, creating a dispute that has poisoned relations with modern Turkey.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I. Scholars view it as the first genocide of the 20th century, but Turkey says that the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Jubilation followed the House Foreign Affairs Committee's approval of the resolution Oct. 10, with Armenian lawmakers giving a standing ovation to their American counterparts and a pro-government newspaper declaring in a headline: "Historical Justice is Restored."

Sentiments have sobered since, as the fate of the resolution is now in question.

Turkey, a U.S. ally and NATO member, recalled its ambassador from Washington for consultations in protest, warning the U.S. of serious damage to relations and complications for the U.S. military operation in Iraq. The Bush administration opposes the resolution, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that prospects for a House vote were now uncertain.

In Yerevan, where a slow construction boom is bringing Western stores, flashy nightclubs and upscale restaurants to a run-down city, Armenians are closely watching events unfold _ through television and newspaper reports, on the Internet and with the help of the more than 1 million-strong diaspora in the United States.

"The Fate of the Resolution is Uncertain," one newspaper declared. "Congressmen regret that they voted for the resolution," another reported. Another publishes a running tally of U.S. lawmakers, pro and con.

"How much longer can Turkey ... blackmail Washington, plot demarche, threaten worse relations, frighten and so on?" asked Karen Vartazarian, a 28-year-old Web designer.

"We're convinced that the House of Representatives will make the right decision and will not abandon the democratic values the United States was founded on," said Arpi Vartanian, regional director of the Armenian Assembly of America, an advocacy group.

Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian went to Washington on Thursday for World Bank and other meetings. He also met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, though Gates told reporters later that the genocide resolution was not discussed.

Some Armenians fear the resolution could cause trouble for Armenians living in Turkey, or the thousands who try to make a living by going there to buy goods for resale back home.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of the Turks, and maintains a virtual blockade that has all but crippled Armenia's economy, which relies heavily on investment and support from Armenians abroad.

After years of disappointment, suffering and isolation, many Armenians are not counting on a vote by Congress.

"So many times has recognition of the genocide been promised and so many times (the promise) hasn't been fulfilled. (But) one can live through this," said Artem Yerkanian, a commentator on the state-run channel Shant.

© 2007 The Associated Press