Genocide issue may cloud Armenia envoy nominee's hearing

WASHINGTON — The career diplomat nominated to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Armenia almost certainly will avoid using the phrase "Armenian genocide" at her Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

The big question, closely watched by Armenian American activists, is whether the Senate will still let nominee Marie Yovanovitch take her post in Yerevan.

On Wednesday, Yovanovitch's State Department boss made it clear that Bush administration officials will continue steering away from the genocide term when referring to the mass killings and forced exiles that occurred in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923. By some counts, upward of 1.5 million Armenians died.

"The United States and the president have never denied any of the events," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, but "we do not use the term genocide to describe them."

Foreshadowing Thursday's confirmation hearing, Fried fended off pleas for a rhetorical concession by lawmakers who represent politically vocal Armenian American constituencies. Fried said it would be diplomatically imprudent to use a word that incited considerable anger in Turkey, a vital U.S. military ally.

"We don't use the term genocide, because we don't think the use of the term would lead to a reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey," Fried said.

Last year, Turkish leaders warned of dire diplomatic and military consequences if the House of Representatives approved a nonbinding Armenian genocide resolution. In an embarrassing defeat for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the resolution, which once seemed on the brink of passing, stalled after more than two dozen House members withdrew their support.

The resolution is now in limbo, with no sign that it will be resurrected anytime soon. Politically, that leaves the confirmation of the next U.S. ambassador to Armenia the primary battleground over the genocide issue.

Bush nominated Yovanovitch in March to fill a position that's been vacant since 2006. The 1980 Princeton graduate previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic.

The last permanent U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, was recalled in 2006 after he told audiences in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and Fresno, Calif., that he'd concluded that the 1915-1923 events amounted to genocide. The Senate refused to confirm the first diplomat nominated to replace Evans, Richard Hoagland, over genocide questions.

"Denying a traumatic event such as genocide, one cannot create, nor implement, honest and effective diplomacy," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., advised Yovanovitch in writing earlier this year.

Throughout the House hearing Wednesday, Fried stressed the importance of filling the empty post soon.

He noted that Armenia's "flawed" presidential election in February was "marred by credible claims of ballot stuffing, vote buying, intimidation and even beatings of poll workers," and he further cited reports of "mass arrests of opposition activists."

"Our efforts to assist Armenia during this crisis have been hampered by the fact that we have not had an ambassador in Yerevan for nearly two years," he said.

Related stories from McClatchy DC