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By Harry Tamrazian in Prague
Gerard Cafesjian, a U.S. philanthropist of Armenian descent, has set up a new lobbying organization which he hopes will “complement” the existing Armenian-American advocacy groups and match their considerable influence in Washington.

The Cafesjian-funded U.S.-Armenia Public Affairs Committee (USAPAC) announced its creation in a mission statement last week, pledging to become a “powerful and effective addition to the Armenian-American lobby.”

The group will be run by Ross Vartian and Rob Mosher, two former senior executives of the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), which is led by another U.S.-Armenian tycoon, Hirair Hovnanian. Cafesjian himself has long been a member of the AAA board of trustees.

Vartian, who was the Assembly’s chief executive as recently as last year, insisted that the USAPAC is not a splinter group, arguing that Cafesjian will remain on the Assembly board. “Our primary purpose is to add to the community of the Armenian lobby in a unique and collaborative way and make the Armenian lobby stronger by doing it,” he told RFE/RL in an interview.

“It’s quite clear that in any large lobby there are many voices,” he said. “The problem is not the number of voices, the problem is do those voices work together? And we pledge to do that.”

The AAA and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) have been instrumental in the passage of congressional bills making Armenia one of the largest per-capita recipients of U.S. aid in the world. They are also at the forefront of a long-running campaign for U.S. recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

According to Vartian, the USAPAC will concentrate on countering the impact of Azerbaijani oil on U.S. policy towards Armenia and pressing Washington to take a pro-Armenian stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He said genocide recognition will also be on the USAPAC agenda but indicated that the new group will favor a softer line on Turkey’s membership in the European Union.

“Turkey today is not a friendly neighbor to Armenia. But as a fully mature member of the EU, Turkey would be a much more friendly neighbor of Armenia,” Vartian said.

Vartian denied that the USAPAC will also be furthering the interests and agenda of Armenia’s government, with which Cafesjian is believed to have close ties. “While the Armenian government may welcome our doing this, we are not here to promote or push the Armenian government,” he said.

Cafesjian is the principal owner and sponsor of three Armenian television stations that are staunchly supportive of President Robert Kocharian and his government. Their news coverage of opposition candidates during the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia was criticized as extremely biased by Western observers.

The TV channels caused an uproar earlier this year by suggesting that Armenia’s leading human rights groups work for Western intelligence services. One of the accused human rights campaigners charged at the time that Cafesjian’s money is being used for “spreading government propaganda and disinformation.”

In Vartian’s words, the USAPAC believes that democracy is important for Armenia and hopes that the upcoming national elections in the country will be free and fair. “We will not hesitate to talk about the pluses and minuses of what is happening in Armenia, just like anyone else does,” Vartian said. “It would not be a problem for us to criticize.”

“But we are not here to criticize, we are here to support,” he added.

(Photolur photo: Gerard Cafesjian.)
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