The Armenian Lobby and Azerbaijan: Strange Bedfellows in Washington

Ömer Taşpınar
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert

March 8, 2010

Last week’s vote on the Armenian genocide resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee effectively put an end to already weak hopes of reconciliation between Ankara and Yerevan. In that sense, the vote created two clear victors: the Armenian lobby and Azerbaijan.

Strange bedfellows you may say. Usually, you would not expect these bitter enemies who fight about nearly every issue under the sun to agree on something as important as this resolution. To understand why, all you have to do is look at their dysfunctional logic about rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan. The Armenian lobby and Azerbaijan may bicker about everything, but they agree on one crucial thing: They hate the protocols that are supposed to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia. For the Armenian lobby the reason is simple: Reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia is bad for business. According to their logic, Turkey needs to recognize the Armenian genocide before any kind of normalization with Armenia is to occur. Normalization first, talks about what happened in 1915 later is a non-starter. Yet, this is exactly what the protocols between Armenia and Turkey envision. And ever since Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan decided to support these protocols, he has been demonized by the Armenian lobby as a sellout who is betraying his country. This is why Sarksyan took big risks by going ahead with the protocols despite the objections of the Armenian lobby in the United States and the 7-million-strong Armenian diaspora across the globe. In short, for the diaspora, “genocide recognition” is the sine qua non of relations with Turkey. That Sarksyan was willing and able to push for normalization with Turkey despite such objections is a remarkable development. After all Armenia is a small country of 2.5 million people. It desperately needs the support of its wealthy diaspora. 

It is easy to understand why the Armenian-American lobby and the Armenian diaspora were opposed to normalization with Turkey in the framework of these protocols. But what about Azerbaijan? Why was Baku so opposed to seeing their Turkish brothers open the border with Armenia and establishing diplomatic relations? Their logic is simple, too. They want to use such normalization as leverage against Armenia. Azeri focus is on Karabakh. Any Turkish-Armenian reconciliation that comes without an end to the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is seen as a betrayal by their big Turkish brother. They were therefore strictly opposed to any kind of protocols of normalization between Ankara and Yerevan in the absence of a solution to their own problem with Armenia. Such dynamics pushed them to take the same position as the Armenian-American lobby.

So what will happen now? Well, the Armenian lobby and Azerbaijan can celebrate their victory. Thanks to the visionary (!) vote by the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, the Turkish Parliament and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government will have yet another excuse to permanently delay the ratification of the protocols with Armenia. Turks don’t like external pressure when it comes to difficult decisions. At this point, any attempt to ratify the protocols in the Turkish Parliament will be perceived as bowing to Washington’s pressure. AKP deputy Murat Mercan who heads the Foreign Relations Committee of the Turkish Parliament made this point very clear when he said: “It would be political suicide for him and his colleagues to bring the protocols to a vote in the Turkish Parliament if the U.S. Congress votes in favor of genocide recognition.”

Sadly this point was largely lost on the U.S. administration. The State Department and the White House could have done a much better job explaining to members of Congress the repercussions of their votes on this issue. Now, the Obama administration will have to engage in serious “damage control” and “crisis management” with Ankara. In the meantime Azerbaijan and the Armenian lobby can rejoice in their pyrrhic victory and kiss goodbye the protocols of normalization between Turkey and Armenia. One can only hope that history will not be on their side.