The Influence Industry

Armenia-Turkey dispute over genocide label sets off lobbying frenzy

A boy pauses in front of a poster of 90 survivors of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
A boy pauses in front of a poster of 90 survivors of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. (Herbert Bagdasaryan/associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Each year, Armenian Americans remember the massacres of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in the aftermath of World War I. And each year, Congress becomes embroiled in a bitter debate between Armenia and Turkey over whether to label the episode as genocide.

The dispute has set off a lobbying frenzy this year in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) is scheduled to hold a vote Thursday on a nonbinding resolution that calls on President Obama to formally refer to the 1915 massacre as genocide and to use the term during an annual address on the topic next month.

The resolution underscores the depth of emotion on both sides over whether Armenians, many of whom settled in the United States, were the target of a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing nearly a century ago amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It also poses a thorny political quandary for Obama and two of his top aides, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, all of whom strongly supported labeling the massacre as genocide when they were in the Senate.

The resolution has prompted an aggressive push by the government of Turkey and its lobbying firm led by former House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who had urged recognition of the Armenian genocide when he was in Congress. Public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard also has a contract with Turkey worth more than $100,000 a month, records show.

A contingent of members of the Turkish parliament visited Washington this week before the vote to meet with key lawmakers of both parties, warning that approval of the genocide resolution would hurt relations between the two countries, including cooperation with the United States on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A similar vote in committee in 2007 led Turkey to recall its U.S. ambassador and prompted a furious effort by the Bush administration to scuttle a full House vote.

Turkish officials also argue that a genocide resolution could imperil an emerging agreement between Turkey and neighboring Armenia to normalize ties.

"Our message is very straightforward: This resolution that is coming up to the committee will hamper Turkish-American relations and is not helpful for relations between Turkey and Armenia," said Murat Mercan, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who serves as chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Turkish parliament.

Armenian American groups strongly disagree and say they are confident that the resolution will be approved. "Our position is that the U.S. affirmation of the Armenian genocide should not be held hostage to Turkey-Armenia relations," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

The Turkish government has spent millions on Washington lobbying over the past decade, much of it focused on the Armenian genocide issue. The country's current lobbyist, the Gephardt Group, collects about $70,000 a month for lobbying services from the government in Ankara, according to federal disclosure records.

Another group, the Turkish Coalition of America, has targeted the districts of committee members who are considered potential swing votes, including submitting op-eds to local newspapers from the group's president.

The Armenian government, which previously enlisted BKSH & Associates and Burson-Marsteller, does not currently have a U.S. representative on file, according to Justice Department records of foreign lobbyists. But several well-organized Armenian American groups are active in attempting to influence Congress, including the Armenian National Committee and the Armenian Assembly of America, which together spent about $380,000 on lobbying last year.

Armenian American communities in California, Massachusetts and New York have also provided crucial political support to Democrats in recent years, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Armenian-related political action committees have given members of Congress about $83,000 in campaign contributions since 2007, most of that to Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission records. The Turkish Coalition PAC, meanwhile, has doled out $173,000 in donations during the same period, with a slight preference for Republicans.

The chief executives of defense contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, United Technologies and Northrop Grumman have also weighed in, writing in a letter to Berman this week that the resolution risks "alienating a significant NATO ally and trading partner." The Armenian National Committee of America blasted the letter as "morally reprehensible."

Lobbying is in good health

The Center for Public Integrity released another eye-opening report this month highlighting the sheer scale of the lobbying effort surrounding health-care reform. Using public disclosure records, the watchdog group calculated that 1,750 companies and groups hired 4,525 lobbyists to work on the issue last year.

To put it another way: That's more than eight health-care lobbyists for each member of Congress.

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