Will U.S. envoy to Armenia become an election issue?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President Bush is trying again to fill a long-vacant ambassador's seat to Armenia that's gotten entangled in U.S. politics.

In a move that could either revive a Capitol Hill conflict or reveal that passions have cooled, Bush has announced plans to nominate career diplomat Marie L. Yovanovitch as the ambassador to Armenia. If she's confirmed, she'd replace the previous ambassador, John Evans, who was recalled in 2006 after he gave speeches in California endorsing claims of an Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

Those claims enflame sentiment in Turkey. Last fall, Turkish officials protested bitterly after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution that condemned the killings of Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as genocide. Democrats withdrew support for the resolution after President Bush called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ask that it not be considered by the full House of Representatives.

The collapse of the House resolution means that the Yovanovitch nomination may become this year's highest-profile issue for Armenian-Americans who've championed the genocide issue for decades.

It also could become mired in the U.S. presidential campaign. Armenian-Americans make up sizable voting blocs in California and New Jersey, and Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will consider Yovanovitch's nomination.

When the last effort to replace Evans foundered, in September 2006, Obama told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in writing that an Armenian genocide "is a widely documented fact."

A spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Boxer didn't yet have a position on the Yovanovitch nomination. "We'll take a careful look at it," Natalie Ravitz said. "Relations between our two countries are very important."

A 1980 graduate of Princeton who later earned a master's degree at the National War College, Yovanovitch has been serving since the summer of 2005 as the U.S. ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic. She previously served in Russia.

The United States last had a permanent representative in Armenia two years ago. Evans said he was recalled from the post early after he told audiences in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Fresno, Calif., that Armenians were the victims of genocide.

Evans said his characterization displeased Turkey and his State Department superiors. Turkey maintains that the word "genocide" mischaracterizes a complicated war in which many people died on both sides.

"Armenian-Americans have attempted to extricate and isolate their history from the complex circumstances in which their ancestors were embroiled," the Turkish Embassy declared in a statement last year. "In so doing, they describe a world populated only by white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains."

The unsettled question for Yovanovitch is whether she can avoid the fate of Bush's last nominee, career diplomat Richard Hoagland.

Armenian-American activists and their Capitol Hill allies stymied Hoagland's nomination. He repeatedly ducked the word "genocide" during his June 2006 Senate confirmation hearing, opting instead for words such as "tragedy" and "horrific."

Boxer, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, asked Hoagland in writing why the tragedy — in which, Armenians say, upwards of 1.5 million people died — wouldn't meet the definition of genocide. Hoagland's answer, while technical, prompted the most vehement activists to call him a genocide "denier."

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez subsequently stopped the nomination by placing a "hold" on it. Bush later withdrew Hoagland's nomination.

"We'd like to see an ambassador in Yerevan," Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said Tuesday, "but we'd like to see the right ambassador, and it's hard to be the right ambassador if you don't speak the truth about genocide."

Evans declined to comment on the latest nomination, and Hamparian said Armenian-Americans "don't really know much" about Yovanovitch beyond her State Department biography.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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