By Hrach Melkumian, Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Emil Danielyan
Armenian officials welcomed on Friday conditions for the impending US military assistance to Azerbaijan agreed by both houses of the US Congress earlier this week. Senior lawmakers in Yerevan, who had claimed that the suspension of US sanctions against Azerbaijan could trigger renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, said they are largely satisfied with the final version of legislation allowing President George Bush to waive Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act.
The Bush administration has been pushing for the lifting of the sanctions since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, arguing that the move is important for America’s ongoing anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan. An ad hoc “conference committee” of the Senate and the House of Representatives decided on Wednesday that the White House can provide military assistance to Baku only if it is not used “for aggressive purposes against Armenian communities in the Southern Caucasus.”
The Senate-approved version of the amendment stipulated that the US assistance can not be used for offensive purposes against Armenia only. Two key committees of the Armenian parliament and some Armenian lobbying groups on Capitol Hill warned that that report language would not keep Azerbaijan from unleashing a “military aggression” against the Armenian-populated enclave.
The committee chairmen told RFE/RL on Friday that the final version of the legislation addresses most of their concerns. “I am satisfied with the provision that they can not use the [US] aid against Armenian communities in the South Caucasus,” said Hovannes Hovannisian of the foreign relations committee.
“That is a partial victory for us,” said Vahan Hovannisian, chairman of the committee on defense and security. “But that’s still what we needed.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian also welcomed the conditions attached to the anticipated waiver of Section 907. “It is made absolutely clear that American assistance can not be used against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh,” Oskanian told RFE/RL in a phone interview from New York. “We have secured important safeguards.”
Oskanian insisted late last month that the waiver will lead to “very limited” US military support to Baku and will only be used for training security services and protecting Azerbaijan’s borders against “infiltration” by radical Islamist groups affiliated with Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
According to the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the conference committee approved the final wording of the congressional amendment "against the wishes of the State Department.” “Although it was clear from the deliberations among the conferees that this reference was to Nagorno Karabakh, the panel felt constrained by intense pressure from the State Department from stating this explicitly,” the ANCA said in a statement.
The ANCA, which had described the earlier Senate version of the bill as a “setback” for the Armenians, also welcomed another provision whereby Congress will review and reserve the right to amend the waiver language in the fiscal year 2003 foreign aid process. "We welcome these new safeguards. Although in the form of non-binding report language, they…signal the White House that Congress will impose strict scrutiny and exercise careful oversight of the Administration's waiver authority," said ANCA executive director Aram Hamparian.
Another influential lobbying group, the Armenian Assembly of America also lauded the toughening of the waiver conditions. "The Assembly's goal is to assist and protect all Armenians and this Conference Committee result achieved exactly that,” said the Assembly’s government relations director, Bryan Ardouny.
The Assembly and the ANCA were instrumental in the passage of Section 907 nearly ten years ago. The legislation seriously restricts US government assistance to Azerbaijan until it lifts the economic blockade of Armenia and Karabakh. Successive White House administrations and some legislators have tried, unsuccessfully, to repeal the sanctions which Azerbaijan considers unfair and discriminatory.
The decision to grant Bush conditional waiver authority followed the defeat of yet another attempt by Senator Sam Brownback to have the sanctions lifted altogether. Its principal author, Senator Mitch McConnell, has assured the influential Armenian-American community that "counter-terrorism assistance to Azerbaijan will not be forthcoming unless the President determines and certifies to Congress that the assistance will not undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan or be used for offensive purposes against Armenians.”
The conference committee also approved $90 million in economic assistance to Armenia for the next financial year. In addition, Yerevan will first for the first time receive $4.3 million worth of US military assistance. The $90 million appropriation is an $8.5 million increase from the House version of the bill passed earlier this year.
The total volume of American aid to Armenia since 1992 has reached a spectacular $1.4 billion this year.