Armenian Weekly Assistant Editor Nanore Barsoumian conducted a phone interview with U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern on Dec. 17, as he was wrapping up his tour of Armenian communities in the U.S. Below is the full transcript of the interview.
Nanore Barsoumian—How would you assess your first year as ambassador in Armenia?
Ambassador John Heffern—It’s been a tremendous experience for me and my wife. We’re not experts on the region, so in many ways we did not know what to expect. We’ve had a number of very, very pleasant surprises in our time there. First of all, how warm and hospitable the people are, and how much they want to be partnered with the West, the United States, Europe, the E.U. [European Union], even NATO. They do a lot with NATO, which was a big surprise to me. So that was my first surprise—that they’re very Western-oriented, and warm and hospitable to us as Americans and as ambassadors.
The second surprise was to me a very pleasant one. It was that the information technology [I.T.] sector is tremendously successful, growing 20 percent a year, with 15 percent job creation, and that U.S. partners are a key part of that success. So U.S. companies are there, U.S. I.T. companies are there from all over the country, doing some very important transformative investments. There are obviously some challenges there, which we can talk about.
N.B.—That brings us to the next question, which is about the challenges. You’ve been very involved in the cultural, social, and political life in Armenia. What are, in your opinion, some of the challenges facing the country, and how can the U.S. government play a helpful role?
J.H.— One challenge, that is a challenge that we are all trying to address, is that there is a rather widespread sense of fatalism and apathy about the system—that it is hard to change things. I think this is very debilitating for reform there. And that’s what we are trying to do, to work with our partners to bring about positive change, and to counter this feeling of fatalism, that nothing will ever improve or change. What we’re trying to do is to develop partnerships with organizations, with NGOs [non-governmental organizations], with agents of change in the ministries, in the political parties, in the press—and obviously the diaspora communities have been hugely important in this effort as well—to push for these kinds of partnerships, to push for positive change, to push for this Western look that we’re trying to accomplish. To be using the young people, and using our exchange alumni, working with them to generate this feeling of confidence and optimism that Armenia can succeed as a democracy, a prosperous country, a secure country, and that they can do something to help that success.
The regional challenges are well known, of course. The United States is absolutely committed to get Turkey to do the right thing on the protocols, and open that border. Secretary [Hillary] Clinton visited Armenia twice in her time as Secretary of State—the first visit since James Baker visited in 1992. For 18 years, no Secretary of State had visited, and she has visited twice. She has been very vocal publically and privately that the ball is in Turkey’s court to implement, to ratify the protocols, without any linkage to Nagorno-Karabagh, that they’ll sign without that precondition, and it’s wrong for Turkey to do that linkage. So getting that Turkish border opened is a huge challenge and it will be very important for Armenia; it will help Turkey, as well, in terms of trade and people-to-people contact.
The third, of course, is a peaceful resolution to Nagorno-Karabagh, which has been very debilitating to the whole region. The violations are a problem. The focus on the military is bad for all the countries in the region. So through the Minsk process—the United States is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk process, with France and Russia—we’re absolutely committed to finding a peaceful solution to the problem, and we’re pushing the parties—Armenia and Azerbaijan—to find such a resolution.
N.B.—And what sort of a solution do you envision for Nagorno-Karabagh?
J.H.—Well the solution, the parties are going to have to come up with the solution. The big powers are not going to impose it—I don’t think. I’m not the negotiator so I don’t know all the ins and outs, but obviously I follow it very carefully. The co-chairs are not trying to impose a solution. We’re just offering language, we’re offering solutions, we’re offering principles, we’re offering confidence-building measures, and a whole menu of different approaches to encourage the parties to be creative to find a solution. The solution is going to be agreed on by both sides, and that’s what so hard about it, because there’s no trust now. Everything is considered to be zero-sum; a gain for one is considered a loss for the other. And so we’re trying to be creative, and we’re trying to push the parties to be creative, define some kind of a resolution that will allow this to be resolved peacefully, because there is no military solution here at all. The only solution is a peaceful one. Another war or any kind of military action is not going to solve this problem.
N.B.—The Aliyev government, however, has upped its warmongering rhetoric vis-à-vis Karabagh. Just recently, in August, when Hungary repatriated Ramil Safarov—the man who was convicted of axing to death an Armenian lieutenant during a NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace program in Budapest—to Azerbaijan, he was released, promoted, and received all sorts of gifts. The impression in the Armenian-American community is that the U.S. reaction has not been forceful enough. What are your thoughts?
J.H.—Well, those are two separate questions. On the Safarov pardon—the extradition by Hungary and then the pardon and, as you described, treating him as a hero when he returned to Baku—the U.S. was strongly critical of that. Within 24 hours, the very next day, Secretary Clinton and the White House both condemned it. President [Serge] Sarkisian and the foreign minister were very appreciative of that. After our statement, after we led the way, the Europeans, and a number of other Western partners, NATO and others, criticized the action following our lead. I think our statement on the Safarov affair was strong, and did identify who the parties were that took the unwarranted actions: Budapest and Baku.
The first part of your question, though, on the general hostile rhetoric and the other actions related to Nagorno-Karabagh more specifically, the Minsk process and the three co-chairs were mediators in this process, and so what the mediators do is they identify areas where there are problems and things that are hurting the atmosphere and holding back on the possibility of a solution, and we are publicly at the presidential level criticizing the rhetoric, the arms sales, the violations, and a whole host of things that are happening that are hurting the peace process, and we criticize those in a balanced way in public. Sometimes those specific things are more relevant to one capital or the other, and we’re much more frank with them in private discussions as to who has done what and who needs to take more action in which area. But the public statements are in fact balanced statements because we are mediators in the process and our goal is to push the parties toward a creative solution.
N.B.—My next question—which I’m sure you’ve heard quite a bit about—is TIFA, a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Recently, U.S. based companies applied to your embassy, calling on the Obama Administration to prioritize U.S.-Armenia economic relations. The Armenian National Committee of America, the Armenian government, as well as the American Chamber of Commerce, have also requested such a step. What are your thoughts on the issue? Do you think such an agreement will come to fruition anytime soon?
J.H.—Well, we are prioritizing economic relations. We are absolutely committed to deepening our economic relations and pushing more trade, and pushing more investment to deepen those economic ties. We have now a very active and high-level agency formed to work on economic issues. It’s a broad agenda, it’s trade, investment, and cooperation. So it’s the full agenda, it’s inter-agency on the U.S. side, a high level inter-agency. It’s high level on the Armenian side. We had the plenary session most recently in October. In addition to the plenary we also have working groups. We have the energy working group, the trade working group, and the investment working group, who meet more than once a year, each through either DVCs, video conferences, or face to face when there’s travel back and forth. We feel that this form does allow us to have the kind of conversations that we need to have with the Armenian government on these issues: trade, investment, business climate, and cooperation. So we think the form that we have is a good one.
In fact we have received, as you said, a number of letters from really key U.S. investors, suggesting that a TIFA might be a better format, and we’re obviously considering that. We’ll work with Washington to determine what the best format is. But I would just say that the format that we have now includes USTR [U.S. Trade Representative], includes all the U.S. agencies, so it is just a matter of a different format; it’s not much different in terms of substance. So we’ll explore the TIFA, the bilateral tax treaty, there were a number of things referred to in this letter. We’ll continue to work with Washington to see if any of these instruments might improve our dialogue, or improve the atmosphere with Armenia.
But I do want to say one thing, that what’s holding back trade investment is not the format. It’s not a matter of the process. It’s the business climate in Armenia. It would be unfortunate if this idea that our trade relationship would be better if only we had a TIFA…if it were used by authorities in Yerevan to take the pressure off of them to improve the business climate. What’s holding back our trade investment is lack of transparency in the tax system and the customs system. American investors I’ve heard in these two weeks of the diaspora tour, American investors are very disappointed because of the lack of transparency, and problems that they’ve had that have not been treated fairly in the courts. It’s the court system, it’s the customs system, it’s the business climate in Yerevan, frankly, that is holding back the trade investment. It has nothing to do with the format of the meetings or different kinds of treaties. So we’re exploring those treaties, and we’re exploring the formats. I appreciate the letters that we got, and the input from these companies are important, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. The real issue is the business climate in Yerevan.
N.B.—The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is approaching. The U.S. government has avoided using the term “genocide” so far. As we approach the centennial, do you expect that this policy will change?
J.H.—The president’s statement, the Remembrance Day statements, are strong statements. He acknowledges the facts—1.5 million Armenians massacred and marched to their deaths in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. It’s a strong statement. How the U.S. government characterizes those terrible events is a policy decision for the Washington policymakers, elected officials at the highest levels, not for the embassy in Yerevan, and not for me. So I will follow my instructions on this one and will take it one day at a time.
N.B.—You Tweet often about your activities in Armenia. What are some of the highlights of your personal experiences in Armenia?
J.H.—The highlight of a personal experience is again this warm welcome that we’ve received from the Armenian people, first of all. Second, the talents and the creativity of the Armenian people is very exciting to see. We’ve been to more musical performances in our one year there than in 30 years of foreign service. There are all sorts of jazz clubs, philharmonics; the ballet troupe has gotten started again; Rudolph, a diasporan ballet dancer from the United States, has come back to Yerevan to get the ballet troupe restarted. So their cultural side is very active, and it is very exciting to see. The other thing that we’ve enjoyed—my wife Libby and I—is getting around Armenia. We’ve driven all around. We like to go to the festivals: we’ve been to the honey festival in Berd; the khorovadz festival in Akhtala; the Areni wine festival, of course, is a well-known festival. We encourage people who come to Armenia to experience life outside of Yerevan. Yerevan is a wonderful city but getting outside of Yerevan, and going to these festivals and seeing what these people in these small towns and villages are doing is very exciting. So the first thing is the hospitality, and the second is the culture, the talents of the people, and the third is getting out of town and going to these festivals and seeing what’s happening in the region. Obviously some challenges are there for sure, but seeing how these resilient, talented people are dealing with their difficulties is very refreshing.
N.B.—As you conclude your meetings with Armenian communities, what are your impressions? Could you talk about the messages that you will take back with you?
J.H.—There are two main messages that I will take back with me: First…about Turkey and history, and Nagorno-Karabagh. The diaspora obviously has well-informed and strong views on all of these issues, and I will report back to my authorities in Washington when I leave New York later this week. But I’ve also heard a number of things here that I will take back to Yerevan. Those are about the business climate, about American citizens who have faced legal processes that are non-transparent, in many peoples’ views, and unfair. And the impact that those kinds of actions have on investment and trade in Armenia; the business climate issue—I’ve heard a lot from investors here who have had some bad experiences, who do not want to invest in Armenia anymore even though they are absolutely committed to Armenia’s future and success. There are a number of stories that I need to take back with me to Yerevan, to demonstrate to the authorities there that with some bolder reforms—they’ve made some reforms, and I try to encourage more than criticize—I think there’s great potential for Armenia to succeed as a democratic, prosperous, and secure country. We’re going to continue to do that, so my message to them is: Make the changes necessary to take advantage of these opportunities of this really committed Armenian-American community that wants to help this country succeed. I think with some bolder reforms they will really be able to take advantage of some real opportunities.