By Emil Danielyan
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised President Serzh Sarkisian for his efforts to end Armenia’s post-election political crisis and improve its relations with Turkey as they met in New York late Wednesday.
In her opening remarks at the meeting released by the U.S. State Department, Rice spoke of “healing reforms” which she believes have been initiated by Sarkisian since the dramatic aftermath of the Armenian presidential election. “We believe that you have made some good steps to address this, and so I’m here to build on that and to move forward,” she said.
Sarkisian, for his part, thanked the United States for its “financial assistance and non-financial help” to Armenia. “They are both important,” he said at the start of the talks held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Ever since he took office on April 9, Sarkisian has been under pressure from the U.S. and other Western powers to end his predecessor Robert Kocharian’s harsh crackdown on the Armenian opposition. The crackdown has involved mass arrests and the use of lethal force against opposition demonstrators demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election which Washington has described as “significantly flawed.”
U.S. officials have repeatedly urged the new Armenian administrations to release all political prisoners, abolish severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and engage in dialogue with the opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. They have said that is essential for the provision of $235.6 million in additional U.S. assistance to Armenia, that was effectively frozen following the bloody suppression of the opposition protests in Yerevan.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) again declined to disburse the first major installment of the five-year aid package earmarked for the reconstruction of Armenia’s rural roads. The $7.5 million tranche was due to be released in May. In a June statement, the MCC board said the Armenian government should do more to address U.S. concerns about the political situation in the country.
In a statement, Sarkisian’s office quoted Rice as saying that the steps taken by the new Armenian president create a “good basis” for the continuation of U.S. aid. The statement said the two also spoke about U.S.-led international efforts to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with Sarkisian reaffirming his declared commitment to a “compromise solution.”
Visiting Baku and Yerevan earlier this month, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza indicated that the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which he co-heads together with senior Russian and French diplomats, will step up its efforts to broker a framework peace agreement on Karabakh before the end of this year. Bryza and the two other co-chairs met Sarkisian in New York earlier on Wednesday. Sarkisian’s office said they discussed the possibility of arranging another meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.
Armenia’s unprecedented rapprochement with Turkey, long championed by the U.S., was also on the agenda of Rice talks Sarkisian. According to the latter’s press service, Rice welcomed Yerevan’s overtures to Ankara and expressed hope that Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s historic visit to Armenia will lead to the normalization of relations between the two neighboring states.
Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan were scheduled to meet in New York on Thursday in an effort to keep up momentum in the Turkish-Armenian dialogue. They were expected to discuss and possibly finalize a joint declaration that would call for the creation of Turkish-Armenian commissions dealing with economic and other issues of mutual interest. According to Turkish press reports, one of those commissions would be made up of historians tasked with studying the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
The idea of conducting such a study is unpopular in Armenia and especially its worldwide Diaspora. Many Armenian politicians and Diaspora leaders fear that the Turks would exploit it to keep more foreign nations from recognizing the massacres as genocide.
Sarkisian sought to allay these fears as he spoke before hundreds of Americans of Armenian descent in New York on Wednesday. He described Turkey’s current leadership as “courageous” and said many Turks are now ready to face up to their troubled Ottoman past.
“We must now think about how we can help Turkish society be more objective towards its own history,” said Sarkisian. “A society of which hundreds of thousands representatives took to the streets [of Istanbul] with banners saying ‘We are all Hrant Dink’ and ‘We are all Armenians.’
“One thing is clear to me: we must talk about all topics. Only those people who have nothing to say and suffer from complexes avoid contacts, conversations. We have no complexes and our message is clear.”
Sarkisian also assured Armenian-American activists that Gul is genuinely committed to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. “I am convinced that now is really the time to solve the problems in Turkish-Armenian relations, and I saw a readiness to do in my Turkish counterpart,” he said. “I felt that he has sufficient courage to make difficult decisions.”
(Presidential press service photo)