Armenian lobby faces moment of truth

by Timothy Jemal

Published: Friday February 11, 2011

Los Angeles - On January, 26 a federal judge handed a stinging defeat to the Armenian Assembly of America, a key voice for Armenian-American advocacy in Washington for nearly four decades.

The ruling has a major impact in the ongoing effort to build a museum in Washington, D.C. devoted to the understanding and memorialization of the Armenian Genocide. The legal tussle has largely flown under the radar of the media but has significant consequences for the future of Armenian-American advocacy in Washington.

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly opened her ruling by referencing the chilling words of Adolf Hitler on the eve of his invasion of Poland, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

It was as if the Judge was admonishing the parties with her own message: no amount of bickering, finger-pointing and litigation should halt the completion of a museum and memorial dedicated to victims of genocide.

The suit was brought by the Armenian Assembly and its leadership against Gerard L. Cafesjian as a result of protracted disagreements over how to proceed with the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial project in Washington.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly ruled that all properties located in downtown Washington, D.C. which had been purchased and donated by Mr. Cafesjian for the purposes of building an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial (AGMM), revert back to the Cafesjian Family Foundation (CFF). In addition to the reversion of property, the ruling dismissed all claims launched against Mr. Cafesjian and CFF by the leadership of the Armenian Assembly, reinstated CFF on the AGMM board and ruled that Mr. Cafesjian is entitled to compensation of his legal fees.

The sweeping rejection of each of the Assembly's claims is a significant victory for Mr. Cafesjian and calls into serious question the actions of the Assembly leadership. The detailed, 190-page ruling made public a painful, intra-organizational battle to build a museum and memorial.

What should have been a nationwide community mobilization to build a museum and memorial to honor the Armenian Genocide quickly deteriorated into a conflict over competing visions and most importantly control of the project.

Ironically, at a time when thousands of grassroots advocates across the U.S. were working to pass a long-overdue congressional resolution to commemorate the Armenian Genocide, key leaders of the Armenian Assembly were waging an expensive and time-consuming effort to wrestle control of the project away from Mr. Cafesjian, a generous benefactor of Armenian causes who is a life trustee of the Armenian Assembly.

Unfortunately, on February 9, fully two weeks after the Judge's decision, the Armenian Assembly issued a statement indicating it was not moving on or working toward establishing a new vision to unify the community.

This is a mistake. This legal debacle comes on the heels of a series of legislative setbacks in Washington and controversial decisions by the Armenian Assembly.

For several decades, Hirair Hovnanian has been a benefactor of Armenian causes in Washington and Armenia. Mr. Hovnanian is a co-founder of the Armenian Assembly and a visionary in the community. He helped build the Assembly into one of most well-respected advocacy organizations in the U.S.

Van Krikorian is a former Armenian Assembly staff member who has risen to a prominent leadership role on the Board of Directors serving in various capacities including Board Chairman. The organization's diminished political influence in Washington and with the Diaspora has occurred while Mr. Krikorian has played an increasing role in decision-making.

Moreover, lingering conflict of interest questions regarding his business dealings in Armenia at the same time he served as Chairman of the Assembly's Board, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, have dogged Mr. Krikorian and harmed the organization's image.

Once a dominant player in foreign policy and human rights advocacy, the Assembly's influence has waned. The organization has been noticeably distracted by matters which have failed to engender broad support from the Armenian-American community.

As a result, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has become the lead organization both in Washington and at the grassroots level on behalf of Armenian-Americans. With some 1.5 million Armenian-Americans, there is clearly room for more than one public policy advocacy organization. It's imperative to substantially increase grassroots mobilization to counter multi-million dollar lobbying and media campaigns funded by the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan to deny and distort facts like the Armenian Genocide and aggressions against Nagorno-Karabakh.

Take people like former Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, who claimed to be pro-Armenia when in Congress. Mr. Gephardt has taken millions in lobbying contracts from the government of Turkey to spread disinformation and lobby his ex-colleagues to block Genocide recognition and cast Armenia as a road block to peace.

On the day the ruling was handed down, I bumped into a long-serving member of Congress on Capitol Hill who has been a staunch supporter of issues important to the Armenian-American community for two decades. He strongly urged that the Armenian-Americans unify and increase grassroots political participation to offset the money Azerbaijan and Turkey are spending to influence U.S. foreign policy.

With respect to the museum, it must be built. With his legal victory in hand, I hope that Mr. Cafesjian moves forward to build an Armenian Genocide museum by enlisting broad segments of the community, including groups like the AGBU and ANCA, to support this vital project.

For the Assembly, withering on the vine is no longer an option. An obvious first step is for Mr. Krikorian to step down from the Assembly board. But much more needs to be done including recruiting new volunteer leaders and re-establishing itself a credible grassroots organization.

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Aleppo citadel - site of the AGBU celebration in Oct. 2008 (pictured) - is now in ruins. AGBU

Calendar of Events

The uncertain fate of Armenian communities in the Middle East and particularly in Aleppo will be discussed on Sept. 29 in LA and Oct. 9 in Boston; for details about these and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.