Diplomat eschews calling it genocide

Times Staff Writer

The nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Armenia avoided using the phrase “Armenian genocide” in her Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, but she acknowledged that Armenians had suffered mass deaths, rapes and forced exile at the hands of Turks between 1915 and 1923.

Marie L. Yovanovitch, a Foreign Service officer for 22 years and the current ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that even though the Armenians’ suffering was “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century,” referring to it as “genocide” was “a policy decision” that only top officials such as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were entitled to make.

The phrase has become the focus of a running battle between the administration, which wants to avoid provoking Turkey, and Armenian American activists and their legislative supporters, who are seeking official recognition that what occurred was a genocide.

Bush’s last nominee for the position, Richard E. Hoagland, also refused to use the phrase, and his nomination was withdrawn in the face of strong congressional opposition.

But it remains uncertain whether the Senate will block the confirmation of Yovanovitch to a post that has been unfilled for two years.


The committee, which considered several ambassadorial nominations Thursday, is expected to vote next week on moving Yovanovitch’s name to the Senate floor.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has worked with Armenian American activists, questioned Yovanovitch closely on her views and pressed her to acknowledge that what she called an “ethnic cleansing” amounted to a genocide.

According to aides, Menendez has not yet decided whether to oppose her nomination.

The only other senator to question Yovanovitch, Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), declared that “what happened was genocide -- to me it’s a clear issue.”

But he did not signal that he would oppose her confirmation, telling her that in her interpretation of events, “you have spelled out very clearly what happened.”

Yovanovitch said the administration “understands that many Americans and Armenians refer to the atrocities of 1915 as genocide.”

But she said it has been Bush’s policy, “and that of previous presidents of both parties, not to use that term.”

Bush’s intent, she said, “is to focus on the future, to create an environment that encourages Turkish citizens to reconcile with their past and also with the Armenians.”

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said in a statement that the group was “troubled by Ambassador Yovanovitch’s refusal to offer any meaningful rationale for the administration’s complicity in Turkey’s denials, other than her tacit admission that the United States has apparently allowed a foreign nation to impose a gag rule on America’s right to speak truthfully about the Armenian genocide.”

He said the group would carefully review her written responses to questions submitted by committee members as they decide whether to vote for her confirmation.

Yovanovitch was introduced, and praised, by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), whose ties to the Armenian American community evolved from a close relationship with an Armenian American surgeon who helped treat his wounds from World War II.