ARLINGTON, Mass. (A.W.)—On June 19, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia Marie Yovanovitch spoke about U.S. priorities and interests in Armenia at the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF) in Arlington.
James M. Kalustian, president of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, and Armenian American philanthropist Dr. Robert Mirak introduced Yovanovitch. “Tonight is our first opportunity for us gathered here at the Armenian Cultural Foundation to greet such a diplomat of the highest caliber,” Mirak said.
Regarding the current state of affairs in Armenia, Yovanovitch noted that “elections still remain problematic,” but said that “the Armenian parliament today voted on an amnesty” of those imprisoned during the March 1 riots, “and we [U.S.] welcome this.”
“We understand that the path to democracy is rarely swift or smooth,” she added.
She spoke of the need for accountability and the struggle against a culture of corruption and corruption-enabling within Armenia, at all levels of government and civil society. “Armenian problems require Armenian solutions,” she stressed. “You don’t have to talk to many people to know that there is a need among Armenians for government accountability.”
“Most alarmingly,” she said, turning to the economy, “the World Bank has projected that Armenia’s poverty rate will go from 23 to 28 percent by 2010… In Sisian, no bank has provided a loan since January.”
“U.S. assistance is making Armenian sectors more competitive and economically viable,” she added. “…Thanks to the Armenian American community, Armenia remains one of the biggest recipients of U.S. economic aid.”
If the Armenian-Turkish border were to open, she said, “everyone would win. No one knows what the economic results of an open border would be but it’s estimated that Armenia’s GDP would go up by a few points. We believe that people from Turkey and Armenia would find they have more that unites them than divides them.”
Of President Obama’s failure to use the word “genocide” in his annual April 24 address to Armenian Americans this year, Yovanovitch said, “I know there is disappointment and even anger at President Obama’s April 24th statement… But President Obama went further in his statement than any previous American president.”
“While we must never forget the past, we also must work together for a better future,” she said, stressing the need for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. “That change is possible does not mean it is inevitable and we must work hard and know it will take a lot of political courage.”
During the Q&A, Yovanovitch was asked about the United States’ energy interests in the Caucasus. “I think oil and gas will always be important to the U.S. until we find an alternative,” she said, “but I also think Armenia is important to Washington to facilitate the hard work that Turkey and Armenia have to do to open the border.”
She added, “Many [in Washington] have begun to see that these frozen conflicts in the Caucasus are not as frozen as they thought.”
In response to an assertion that the U.S. does not truly care about human rights and democratization in Armenia in light of the proposed aid cutback to Armenia—and increased aid to Azerbaijan, which exhibits greater levels of governmental authoritarianism and human rights abuses than Armenia—Yovanovitch said, “I do disagree with your position that the U.S. doesn’t care about democracy and human rights in Armenia.”
She referred to the allegations of corruption and voter fraud made by election monitors during Armenia’s last election, and the government’s response to the March 1 incidents, as evidence of the challenges to democratization that Armenia still faces. She also made spoke about the “complicated” system of how aid is doled out to recipient nations.
“We believe that in countries where people are vested in the governmental process, that people do not have to go into the streets to protest, and these countries make better partners for the U.S.”
Regarding Turkey’s precondition to a full border opening—that of a proposed historical commission—an audience member asked Yovanovitch why such a commission should be necessary or agreed to by Armenia when there is consensus in the academic world on the subject.
Yovanovitch responded, “We’re not advocating a particular way to go. That’s up to the two parties… In the talks of a commission, I don’t think the purpose of the commission has been defined.”
Yovanovitch was then asked why Azerbaijan was held to a different standard, as it receives millions of dollars more in aid from the U.S. without making the same advances in national economic stabilization, human rights reform, and democratization. (The audience member first responded with his own answer—that it was a deliberate machination on the part of the U.S. to destabilize Armenia to counter Russian influence and bolster Azerbaijani and Turkish clout in the region.) After a bout of sustained applause by all those in attendance, Yovanovitch responded, “Obviously you’ve articulated very well a position held by many people in this room, but I think you should still be proud of American policies in Armenia.”
She ended her remarks, saying, “I look forward to more high level interest in Washington in Armenia.”
Mirak presented Yovanovitch with a volume on Armenian history as a gift from the ACF and the Armenian Heritage Foundation.