Cos. Line Up With Turkey

Many Fear Impact of Resolution on 1915 Killing of Armenians

Posted March 27, 2007 at 6:25pm

A broad cross-section of corporate America quietly is supporting efforts to thwart a Congressional resolution that would label as “genocide” the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire nearly 100 years ago. Blue-chip companies from the defense, financial services, pharmaceutical, energy and other sectors fear the resolution could hurt their business in modern-day Turkey.

But just as these corporate representatives have focused on stopping the nonbinding resolution on Capitol Hill, an Armenian lobbying group, the Armenian National Committee of America, has launched its own effort. The Armenian committee is not just putting pressure on Members to support the genocide resolution, but is trying to chip away at the corporate interests standing in the way.

The Armenian group this month sent letters to more than 100 companies, including Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson, that are members of the American Business Forum in Turkey or the American Turkish Council, asking them to clarify their position on the genocide resolution.

“Our thought was that ABFT and ATC were being presumptuous in speaking for these companies,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee. In recent days, Hamparian said Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and Cargill have sent letters in response distancing their companies from the lobbying against the genocide resolution. Cargill, for one, said that it “does not have a position on the issue,” while Johnson & Johnson replied that “we would not engage in political issues of this nature,” according to copies of the letters.

The American Turkish Council, which does not count those three companies among its member list, said stopping the resolution is a top priority for the organization, which this week has convened its members for an annual conference near Capitol Hill, giving the group’s members an opportunity to lobby.

“Our message essentially is that this is the perfect storm of bad legislation because it has so many negative dimensions in foreign policy, national security and then there’s the commercial dimension,” said the council’s president, Jim Holmes. This year is an election year in Turkey, and Holmes said that if Congress passes the resolution, Turkish officials would be under pressure to sever business ties with American companies.

“There is rising nationalism in Turkey, and this is an issue that nationalists will grab onto to promote their politics and this could be detrimental to the U.S. relationship,” said one Hill staffer tracking the issue.

Companies such as Citigroup, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Pfizer, Philip Morris International, Raymond James and others are working through the council to stop the resolution, according to Holmes and K Street sources. “In the worst case, if it passes, we know there will be commercial consequences that will be demanded by the people” of Turkey, Holmes added.

The resolution in the House is sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), while Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is the lead sponsor in the Senate.

Schiff said that Turkey and its business allies have pulled out all the stops to scuttle the genocide resolution.

“They have some of the best-paid lobbyists on the Hill,” Schiff said. “They have enlisted non-Turkish organizations to help their denial efforts and are enlisting people to write op-eds in newspapers.” The Turkish government has on retainer lobbyists including former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and the firm DLA Piper.

But, Schiff noted, this year his resolution has more co-sponsors than in the past and the political climate is ripe. And lobbyists agree that although the resolution has been introduced a number of times — and it has been opposed by the Bush and Clinton administrations — this time the political environment is different. The Armenian population in California is large, said a corporate lobbyist, and it’s something that California Democrats have promised those voters.

Congress has a “moral imperative” to recognize the killings as genocide, Schiff said, “and we can’t worry about offending an ally.”

Hamparian of the Armenian committee said that his group wants the resolution passed by April 24, the date of remembrance for what he considers the Armenian genocide.

Mark Parris, a former ambassador to Turkey who is now at the Brookings Institution, said defense contractors and financial services firms are following the issue most closely. U.S. defense companies could be barred from government contracts, he said.

Turkey has a booming economy, Parris added, and banks such as Citigroup have become significant players. “I don’t know that they are quite as vulnerable as defense, but the concern is that if there’s turbulence in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, foreign direct investment will slow down,” he said.

Tuluy Tanc, minister counselor at the Turkish embassy, said that calling what happened in 1915 genocide is very wrong and that label would have a negative impact for U.S.-Turkish relations. “We fear to think of the consequences,” he said.

One corporate lobbyist for a company that is lobbying on the issue said he could speak only on background because the company does not want to publicly discuss its efforts against the genocide resolution. The resolution “is a terrible idea,” said this lobbyist. “It’s not good for business or for Turkish-American relations. It’s a country on the precipices, trying to be a democratic state. The last thing we want to do is hand our enemies something they can use to beat up that government.”