By Emil Danielyan
The Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate paved the way late Tuesday for congressional approval of President George W. Bush’s nominee to serve as the new U.S. ambassador to Armenia.
The diplomatic post has been vacant since the last U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, had his tour of duty in Armenia cut short by the Bush administration last year for publicly describing World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. While acknowledging the deaths of more than one million Ottoman Armenians in 1915-1918, Washington has avoided using the politically sensitive term for fear of antagonizing Turkey, a key U.S. ally.
Richard Hoagland, another career diplomat nominated to replace Evans, saw his Senate confirmation blocked by one of the senators, Robert Menendez, after sticking to the administration’s policy during committee hearings last year. The White House had to withdraw Hoagland’s nomination as a result.
Menendez, whose New Jersey constituency is home to a large number of ethnic Armenians, joined other Foreign Relations Committee members in recommending Marie Yovanovitch’s endorsement by the full Senate despite her refusal to call the 1915 massacres a genocide. His decision not to place a “hold” on Bush’s new ambassadorial nominee was in line with the position of at least one of the two main Armenian-American lobbying groups and Armenia’s government.
While deploring Washington’s reluctance to explicitly recognize the genocide, the Armenian Assembly of America has argued over the past year that the absence of a U.S. ambassador in Yerevan is hampering the development of U.S.-Armenian relations. In a statement issued ahead of the committee vote, Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian reiterated official Yerevan’s hopes that Yovanovitch will secure congressional approval and assume her ambassadorial duties “soon.”
Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, was the only member of the Senate panel to vote against Yovanovitch’s candidacy, having already delayed the confirmation process last month. Boxer, Menendez and the committee chairman, Joseph Biden, wrote to the State Department last week, demanding further clarifications of the U.S. policy on the issue.
In a written reply sent just hours before the committee vote, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, Mathew Reynolds, said the Bush administration “recognizes that the mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and forced deportations of over one and a half million Armenians were conducted by the Ottoman Empire.”
The letter was welcomed by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). “Today's State Department letter, although clearly falling short of America's moral responsibility and national interest in recognizing and condemning the Armenian Genocide, did mark a step in the direction of distancing U.S. policy from the dictates of the Turkish government," Aram Hamparian, ANCA’s executive director, said in a statement.
Yovanovitch, who has until now served as U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, is now expected to be confirmed by the Senate before its August recess.