US-Armenia: Evolution of Bilateral Relations

The Armenian Weekly March 2014 Magazine:
Armenia’s Foreign Policy in Focus

The U.S. was quick in acknowledging the independence of the Soviet breakaway countries, and was one of the first to acknowledge the Republic of Armenia on Dec. 25, 1991. Not long after that, on Jan. 7, 1992, the two countries established diplomatic relations. The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan was opened a year later, on Feb. 3, 1993. Armenia, as well as the other 14 countries that once formed an integral part of the Soviet Union, started to be referred to as the NIS (Newly Independent States). The U.S. immediately adopted a policy to assist these countries in humanitarian, political, and economic terms to ensure their survival.

Armenians gather as Lenin’s statue is toppled in Republic (once, Lenin) square.
Armenians gather as Lenin’s statue is toppled in Republic (once, Lenin) square.

For the U.S., it was vital to see Armenia step onto a path of sustainable development mostly because of the latter’s geographic position, coupled with the fact that it’s a mono-ethnic country with a majority Christian population, as well as some other geopolitical peculiarities. Armenia was seen as a country the U.S. could establish friendly relations with and use as a positive actor in the U.S.-Iran and U.S.-Russia relations, as well as in other broader Middle Eastern issues. Armenia was also an essential corridor through which the north was connected to the south, and the east to the west. Vast Caspian resources could be transferred over Armenia’s territory. Having a reliable partner with such a strategic geographic position could strengthen the U.S.’s presence in the South Caucasus.

For most of the NIS states, and particularly for Armenia, independence was much desired. However, Armenia was unprepared to adequately deal with it. This was mostly due to the fact that it inherited inefficient economic and political systems, and had an extremely complex process of dissolution, which gave rise to new challenges that were even harder to deal with. In Armenia’s case, independence was accompanied with the escalation of conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Not long before Armenia gained independence, a tragic earthquake had hit its northern part in 1988, taking the lives of more than 20,000 people and resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government was pushing for an economic blockade, and was soon joined by Turkey—proof of the brotherhood between these two countries. The situation was made even more difficult by the enormous flow of Armenian refugees from Baku, Sumgait, and other areas of Azerbaijan, where a campaign of ethnic cleansing was ongoing.

Taking into consideration this and other similarly challenging situations in the NIS, the U.S. Congress adopted the FREEDOM Support Act (Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets Support Act; FSA). The FSA aimed at helping NIS countries and was the main mechanism of humanitarian and other types of assistance, including economic, political technical, and democratic assistance. Armenia was included in this act and in the early and mid-1990’s received more assistance from the U.S. government than any other NIS country—a large fraction of the $41 billion in total aid. Amendment 907 of the FSA, which prohibited support to the Azerbaijani government because of the economic blockade on Armenia, was another form of support from the U.S. The establishment of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues in 1995 further strengthened the bilateral relations between Armenia and the U.S. This Caucus was the result of consistent work by Armenian Americans aiming to coordinate work on Armenian issues, promoting legislative initiatives in Congress, and strengthening Diaspora-Armenia relations. Armenia was also able to participate in numerous U.S.-supported programs aimed at strengthening civil society, disseminating democratic values, raising the qualifications of Armenian workers, scholars, and students, and improving the electoral and judicial systems. This was done through a provision of governmental grants to different NGOs, individuals, and institutions working in these fields.

Programs like Enterprise Development and Market Competitiveness (EDMC), Partners for Financial Stability (PFS), Tax Reform Project (TRP), and Entrepreneurship and Civic Activism for Young People were just a few of the projects implemented by USAID in Armenia starting in the early 1990’s. The opening of the American University of Armenia (AUA) contributed enormously to bilateral cooperation in the sphere of education and science. Numerous student and teacher exchange programs gave Armenians a chance to improve their professional qualifications in the U.S. and later contribute their knowledge in the state-building mission in Armenia.

Such fruitful U.S.-Armenian cooperation would have been impossible without friendly relations with high-ranking officials and working visits. Former Foreign Minister Vahan Papazian visited the U.S. in 1993, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian followed suit with an official working visit in 1994, and former Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan was in the U.S. in 1999. From the American side, Secretary of State James Baker visited Armenia in 1992 and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot came in 1999.

Despite the cooperation between these two countries, political developments in Armenia turned out to be quite negative for such cooperation. The presidential election of 1996, which was described by

Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian (Photo: Photolur)
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian (Photo: Photolur)

most observers as non-transparent, was the main reason for this. A New York Times article reflected the situation more clearly: “Armenia has drifted towards dictatorship… Presidential elections this fall were found to be so deeply flawed that the United States, which provides more foreign aid to Armenia per person than to any country except Israel, declined to offer routine congratulations to the winner, Levon Ter-Petrosian. It has been a year of diminishing press freedom and rising human-rights violations. Most of all, it has been a year in which Ter-Petrosian, once revered as the man who brought democracy to Armenia, appears to have completed a journey from liberal intellectual to stony autocrat.”1 The tragic event in 1999, when Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan, Speaker of Parliament Karen Demirchyan, and six other high-ranking officials were killed during a terrorist attack on parliament, was another negative factor that affected Armenia’s positive image in the eyes of the U.S. Armenia was no longer considered a stability spot in the South Caucasus when compared to Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Overall, the 1990’s can be described as a time when both sides were working actively to establish ties. These were indispensable for Armenia to develop its infrastructure, heal its economy, and build a civil society using financial, technical, and other types of American support. For the U.S., it was a time when aid to Armenia could bring positive effects to the entire region. Armenia was a main actor here, and any instability in the Nagorno-Karabagh region could shatter the fragile security of the South Caucasus. Moreover, because Armenia relied on Iran (its only stable border; Georgia plunged into ethno-political conflicts, and Azerbaijan and Turkey closed their borders) and Russia backed the CSTO to ensure its security, the U.S. didn’t have any direct leverage on Armenia, which meant friendly relations were vital for both sides. The Clinton Administration looked to establish new energy routes, through which Caspian resources could flow to the West. Unfortunately, Armenia was excluded from these regional projects because of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and the open policy of isolating Armenia actively pursued by Azerbaijan and Turkey. These routes also bypassed the territories of Iran and Russia.

September 11 had a huge impact on U.S. foreign policy, more or less defining the next eight years of U.S. policy abroad. The Bush Administration sought more stability and security, which was accompanied with its fight against terrorism. The South Caucasus rose in importance, as they were territories through which the U.S. could secure its air corridor. The close proximity of Iran to the region was another factor. The U.S. needed the South Caucasus mainly for its broader plans and policy regarding Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Whereas military cooperation between Georgia and Azerbaijan deepened—the former had a pro-Western-oriented government and the latter had vast energy resources—Armenia remained marginalized and isolated from these developments. This is partly due to the fact that Armenia relied on Russia on security issues; there is still a Russian military base in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri. While programs for democratization and assistance continued, and the U.S. remained actively engaged in the peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan (in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group), aside from political rhetoric, relations between these two countries proceeded at a slow pace—for several reasons.

Turkey, as a key NATO member and a military partner of the U.S., granted the U.S. the exceptional right to use its territory and air space for troop deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense, it was vital to maintain close ties with Turkey. As it is widely known, Turkey and Armenia have no bilateral relations. While the Armenian lobby in the U.S. pushed for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Congress, the Bush Administration could not neglect its close military ties with Turkey, which led to the rejection of the Armenian Genocide bill. Bush himself said, “We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915. But this resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings and its passage would do great harm to relations with a key ally in NATO, and to the war on terror.”2

The second reason is related to Azerbaijan’s role, specifically the importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and Azerbaijan’s air space, through which the U.S. launched operations in Afghanistan. Because relations with Azerbaijan were assessed higher, Bush waived Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act in the early 2000s, although the total cancellation of Section 907 did not succeed.

The third reason involves Georgia and its openly declared course towards NATO and the West. Bush’s two-day visit to Georgia is proof of this. Armenia had a smaller role, if any role at all.

With the election of President Barack Obama, U.S. foreign policy began to gradually change. The Iran nuclear issue, the “Arab Spring,” the global economic crisis, problems with North Korea, and other factors helped shape U.S. foreign policy. Regarding the South Caucasus, it is worth mentioning that Obama’s decision to “reset” relations with Russia consequently affected U.S. attitude towards the region.

U.S.-Armenia relations were marked with positive change, when the U.S. started pressuring Turkey over Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. Although the Turkish-Armenian protocols currently are frozen and both sides do not seem eager to continue this process, evaluating U.S.-Armenia relations in the framework of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation can be viewed in a mostly positive light, when one bears in mind the initial enthusiasm of the Armenian government in initiating bilateral relations with Turkey.

The U.S. is also still actively involved in the OSCE Minsk Group and is working towards ensuring that a new war over Nagorno-Karabagh does not materialize and destabilize the region. U.S. financial assistance to Nagorno-Karabagh also continues (it is the only country other than Armenia to provide financial support, clearly due to active Armenian lobbying efforts in Congress), although the former does not officially recognize Karabagh.

A commemorative stamp issued in honor of the murdered officials in the 1999 terrorist attack on Parliament.
A commemorative stamp issued in honor of the murdered officials in the 1999 terrorist attack on Parliament.

Nevertheless, neither Armenia nor the South Caucasus as a whole has been top priorities for the U.S. Of course, there are some projects related to government reforms, democratization, rule of law, and civil society implemented by USAID. But for almost a decade now, Armenia has been losing the importance it once signified to the U.S. The South Caucasus are mostly seen from Washington as a bone of contention with Russia.

Yet, it’s reasonable to predict more involvement and a stronger desire on the part of the U.S. to deepen ties with Armenia in the near future. Now that President Serge Sarkisian has decided to embrace Putin’s Russia even more fondly with his September 2013 decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union, the U.S. will not want Russia to have complete and unchallenged dominance in the region, particularly in Armenia. There may not open confrontation with Russia, but we’re likely to see more active U.S. involvement in Armenia.

The role of the Armenian Diaspora and its effectiveness is of high importance for U.S.-Armenia relations, but Armenia here is the side that gains most. The Armenian Genocide, which is critically important for both Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora, still remains a sore point in U.S.-Armenia relations. U.S. leaders have time and again refused to officially recognize the genocide, and use it as leverage against Turkey. Obama hasn’t kept his promise of recognizing the Armenian Genocide, instead making references to attempts at Armenia-Turkey reconciliation. However, the closer we get to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the more tense Armenia-Turkey relations become. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Armenia as part of his regional tour at the end of 2014; the U.S. will most probably call for or even initiate another attempt at normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations, thus avoiding tensions and once again breaking Obama’s election-time promise. Expecting Obama to recognize the Armenian Genocide would be naïve; for, however bad or good its relations with Turkey, the latter is still one of the largest NATO members, with aspirations to lead the Middle East. The U.S. simply cannot afford to break ties with Turkey, as any loss from that move will outweigh the gains.

The Nagorno-Karabagh conflict is another important area of cooperation between Armenia and the U.S., which has always been active in the OSCE Minsk Group, advocating for a peace deal between the two sides. However, resolution of the conflict can hardly be dictated from third parties due to high risks of enflaming the region. Whatever the solution, Armenia and Azerbaijan should reach it themselves—and the U.S. seems to realize that.

Regarding economic cooperation with the U.S., Armenian Americans and other investors have raised concerns that the Armenian government does not take firm steps to secure foreign investments. Several local oligarchs almost entirely control the market, stifling the growth of startups. Investments are not entirely secure if they somehow hinder monopolies. There are three major factors that explain the lack of U.S. investment in the Armenian economy: the Armenian market is relatively small; Armenia continues to stay isolated, with its closed borders; and finally, many of the strategically important sectors are under the direct control of Russia.

Another key factor affecting overall U.S. relations with almost all of the countries involved is related to human rights. The U.S. has sometimes been critical towards human rights violations in Armenia, which has included excessive use of power by the government, clashes with police, restrictions on pluralism, political prisoners, electoral fraud, etc. However, overall the U.S. has not been critical enough, as it wishes to maintain good relations with Sarkisian. Priority is instead given to Turkey-Armenia relations and the Nagorno Karabagh conflict.

U.S.-Armenia relations have gone through ups and downs, but they have never been on the brink or at a peak. The political, economic, and military ties between the two countries can certainly be deepened, but this depends largely on the political will of the U.S. This political will, from another perspective, can be boosted by Armenia, which can increase the levels of cooperation as it needs more support from the West.

 

Notes

[1] Specter, Michael “Drift To Dictatorship Clouds Armenia’s Happiness,” New York Times, Jan. 3, 1997.

2 Knowlton, Bryan “Bush urges Congress to reject Armenian Genocide resolution,” New York Times, Oct. 10, 2007.

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Samson Martirosyan

Samson Martirosyan is The Armenian Weekly's correspondent in Gyumri. He received his B.A. in international affairs from the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University in Yerevan. A resident of Gyumri, Martirosyan has interned at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan and has volunteered his time with various organizations. He is currently a Board member of the European Youth Parliament of Armenia.

4 Comments

  1. Yet another one of our Western financed propagandists not able to come to terms with the reality that Armenia’s rightful place has been, is and will continue being FULLY within the Russian orbit. God bless Mother Russia. God bless our Hayrenik.

    • Gurgen,

      Russia is like any other major power. They will do whatever is in their best interest. And means they can and will do things that are counter to Armenia’s needs. Why is Russia selling billions in weaponry to Azerbaijan? God bless indeed.

      Armenia needs to establish connections with the West and Russia. This is a different world now and so much is interconnected. To be only dependent on Russia is to be isolated. Armenia needs to have broader global relations and as independent as is possible while living under Russia’s shadow. I mean seriously, relying totally on a corrupt Russia with an economy that is not as diverse as Europe and the US a good idea?

      “… Armenia’s rightful place has been, is and will continue being FULLY within the Russian orbit.”

      Armenia’s current situation has nothing to do about being in a “rightful place”, but it’s about Armenia being in a tough situation and having limited options.

      “God bless Mother Russia.”
      *Mother* Russia? Very insulting don’t you think? Armenia is supposed to be an independent country, and not a province of Russia.

  2. I enjoyed your thoughtful and nuanced article. Armenia is in a difficult position between Russia and the West. Armenia’s denial of providing arms to Iran that were directly associated with killing US military members in Iraq (was Russia involved in pressuring high level Armenian government officials to do this?) as well as remittances of Armenian immigrants to the US are a couple other of the major factors in influencing our bilateral relations. Russian pressure on Armenia NOT to associate more closely with the economy of Europe (which would improve living standards of the average Armenian) and embrace’s Russia’s customs union and related economic ties AND Russia’s willingness to physically invade countries on its border, makes the flexibility of Armenia to improve relations with the West more difficult. I share the hopes of my Armenian friends here in the US that in the future, there is a change in Russia’s leadership that will be supportive of true Armenian political and economic independence and all that such a status would imply.

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