A US congressional hearing on the closed border between Turkey and Armenia has highlighted what is likely to be the newest legislative battle for Armenian Americans and their allies in Congress.
The June 18 hearing, "The Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts and Closed Borders," was convened by Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat from California who earlier this year took over the chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Berman represents a Southern California district in which Armenian Americans are heavily represented and has been a strong advocate for Armenian issues in Congress, such as the official US recognition of the Armenian genocide. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Most of the other legislators who showed up for the hearing were also allies of Armenian American lobbying groups.
Berman, in his opening statement, called Turkey's closure of the border "baffling" and "quite possibly illegal." Turkey closed its border in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan as a result of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
But the crowd was full of Armenian Americans wearing pink "STOP Turkey's Blockade" stickers supplied by the Armenian National Committee of America, and most of the representatives' questions focused heavily on pro-Armenia issues, hectoring Turkey over the border issue and recognition of the 1915 genocide and Azerbaijan for its military spending and aggressive anti-Armenian rhetoric.
The only witness was Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, who came with a written opening testimony that covered a wide range of issues in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. [Click here for video].
Fried sought to play down the border issue. Asked by Berman whether the blockade hurt Armenia's economy, Fried responded: "Yes, in the early and mid-90s. Less so now. The United States supports the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. We've stated that publicly, we've stated that privately with the Turks. We think there would be a political and economic benefit not just for Armenia, but for Turkey and for regional stability."
"We believe that an opening of the border will take place as a general establishment of normal diplomatic and good neighborly relations between Turkey and Armenia," Fried continued. "We support this. We are taking steps to work with both countries to this end."
Fried also called attention to positive signs in relations between Turkey and Armenia, such as the establishment of some direct flights between the two countries and cultural exchange programs.
And in his written testimony, Fried called on Armenia to take steps toward reconciliation with Turkey. "For its part, Armenia must be ready to acknowledge the existing border and disavow any claim on the territory of modern Turkey, and respond constructively to any efforts Turkey must make," he said.
Another pro-Armenia legislator, Adam Schiff, democrat of California, has introduced legislation that would "direct the Secretary of State to submit a report outlining the steps taken and plans made by the United States to end Turkey's blockade of Armenia." Schiff also introduced the bill last year, but it failed to get through the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Several members also pressed Fried on why the State Department did not classify the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. Representative Diane Watson, another Democrat from Southern California forced Fried into an awkward exchange over the genocide.
"Let me get you on the record: this administration does not think that what happened in 1915 was genocide? Yes or no? Yes or no?" Watson asked. Fried began, "We have never denied
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.