By Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Emil Danielyan
Armenia reacted Thursday positively to the US Senate’s decision the previous day allowing President George Bush to suspend sanctions against its arch-rival Azerbaijan as part of Washington’s ongoing anti-terror campaign. Official Yerevan, which in turn has been promised American military assistance, indicated that it is satisfied with conditions attached to the imminent waiver of Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act.
Following strong pressure from the White House, the Senate allowed the Bush administration to give military and other assistance to Azerbaijan if it helps US efforts to crush worldwide terror networks and is not used for any “offensive purposes against Armenia.” Secretary of State Colin Powell argued in a letter to the lawmakers last week that Baku should be rewarded for its strong support for the US military action in Afghanistan.
The two main Armenian-American groups, which had helped impose the sanctions on Azerbaijan, offered conflicting interpretations of Wednesday’s Senate vote. One of them called it “a victory for Armenia,” while the other described it as a “a setback to the cause of lifting Azerbaijan's dual blockades of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.”
In Yerevan, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said Section 907, which seriously restricts US funding to Azerbaijan until it lifts the blockade, was amended only “insofar as it is necessary for combating terrorism.” “The Armenian government understands that the US administration needs some flexibility in [dealing with] Azerbaijan for an effective fight against terrorism, just as the American government understands that Azerbaijan has not lifted the blockade and therefore can not receive unlimited assistance from the US,” Oskanian said in a statement. He noted with satisfaction that Congress and the White House “did not cave in” to long-running Azerbaijani pressure to repeal Section 907 altogether.
Oskanian made the comments on his return from Washington where he met with senior State Department officials. The issue of the Azerbaijan sanctions were high on the agenda of his two-day talks, the foreign ministry said.
President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials had earlier warned that the removal of the aid restrictions would send a wrong message to the Azerbaijani leadership, making it more reluctant to make serious concessions on Karabakh. They argued that the repeal of Section 907 should be part of a “package” deal ending the decade-long conflict.
The softening of Yerevan’s position may have been the result of the Senate’s parallel decision to allocate $4 million in foreign military financing assistance and $600,000 in international military education and training assistance to Armenia. The provision, suggested by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), seeks to address Armenian concerns.
“Since military assistance will be provided to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, chances that the war will resume are slim,” said Arpi Vartanian, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. “I don’t think that Azerbaijan will get much more than Armenia because that would hamper a peaceful settlement,” she told RFE/RL.
The Bush administration has yet to specify the volume of its planned aid to Azerbaijan. It is also not clear what concrete forms the US military support to the two Caucasus foes will take. US warplanes taking part in the military campaign against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban are believed to be using Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s airspace, giving them a vital corridor to Central Asia.
The Armenian Assembly said the Senate decision giving Bush authority to waive Section 907 was a “victory for Armenia.” "We commend Senator McConnell and the Administration for their diligence in obtaining a limited and balanced waiver of Section 907 law which protects Armenia's and Karabakh’s legitimate security interests while ensuring that President Bush has the tools he needs to counter worldwide terrorism,” the chairmen of the Assembly’s board of trustees and board of directors said in a statement.
The other Armenian advocacy group active on Capital Hill, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), disagreed strongly, arguing that the waiver gives Bush “nearly unrestricted authority to provide military aid to Azerbaijan” and that the conditions set by the Senate are vague. "We are extremely disappointed by the Senate's action this evening and will continue to press forward with our efforts throughout the remainder of the legislative process to educate members of Congress about the negative impact that weakening Section 907 will have for U.S. interests in the Caucasus region," said ANCA executive director Aram Hamparian.
The ANCA and several other Armenian-American organizations have criticized the Assembly for not joining their campaign to prevent any amendments in Section 907. The Assembly, however, insists that with US public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of Bush’s actions since the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was impossible to block the White House initiative.
“Our closest Congressional friends advised the Assembly that presidential waiver authority would be granted, in some form," said its government relations director Bryan Ardouny. "In order to ensure the best possible outcome for Armenia and Karabakh, we advocated for a balanced and limited waiver of Section 907, suggesting such conditions as restricting its time and scope of activities, providing protection for Armenians, and ensuring that the United States maintains parity in its security relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan."
The two lobbying groups have successfully resisted previous White House attempts to have Congress repeal Section 907.
The Senate amendment, which gives US President George W. Bush a conditional authority to waive the pro-Armenian bill, will now go to the House-Senate conference committee. The U.S. House of Representatives has maintained Section 907 earlier this year. The House-Senate conference committee will work out differences in interpretation of Section 907. The committee will also try to settle the amount of the U.S. aid earmarked for Armenia. The Senate version of the bill has set aside $90 million in U.S. aid for Armenia, while the House earmarked $82 million.
Meanwhile, Itar-Tass news agency reported that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage discussed the expected waiver of the US sanctions in a phone conversation with Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliev on Thursday. Aliev, according to his press service, “expressed disagreement with some provisions” of the Senate decision. No details were reported.