By Emil Danielyan
The United States will likely continue to deepen its “very positive” relationship with Armenia under the administration of President Barack Obama, the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, Marie Yovanovitch, said on Tuesday.
In an interview with RFE/RL, she also reiterated U.S. concerns about the continuing fallout from Armenia’s post-election unrest and dismissed Armenia opposition claims that Washington is turning a blind eye to government “repressions” for the sake of its geopolitical interests.
“I think that at this point it’s probably a little early to say whether there are going to be significant changes or what they might be,” Yovanovitch said, commenting on the Obama administration’s policy toward Armenia.
“We are still in the process of forming our new government,” she said. “That said, I think what we’re going to see is mostly continuation. I think if you look over the last 18 years of Armenian-U.S. relationship, it’s been very positive. It’s been a partnership where the U.S. is very supportive of Armenia, trying to help Armenia become a more prosperous, more secure, more independent country.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from Armenia as well, and I think we can expect that trend to continue.”
Armenia has received about $2 billion in economic U.S. assistance since independence not least because of the existence of an influential Armenian community in the United States. Defense and security links between the two nations have grown closer in recent years, reflecting a major shift in Yerevan’s traditionally Russian-oriented foreign policy.
Yovanovitch predicted that Washington will continue to closely monitor the political situation in Armenia and, in particular, the lingering tensions sparked by the flawed presidential election of February 2008. “I think that human rights, Armenia’s progress and steps forward in its transition to democracy will remain very important issues for the United States as they will remain very important issues for Armenia itself,” she said.
U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the Armenian government’s harsh crackdown on the opposition and called for the release of dozens of opposition members arrested in the wake of the ballot and the March 2008 deadly clashes in Yerevan. About 60 of them remain in prison on controversial charges.
Yovanovitch was careful not to accuse the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian of failing to address the U.S. concerns. “As with most of these kinds of issues, it’s a process,” she said. “We hope that that process towards some sort of reconciliation and solution to the political problems will move forward more rapidly.”
The envoy said the Armenian authorities are “clearly trying to address the issue” and spoke of a general amnesty for all arrested oppositionists as a possible solution. “Whatever that solution is, at the end of the day it’s got to be an Armenian solution for an Armenian issue,” she added.
Armenia’s main opposition alliance led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian believes that the U.S. and other Western powers have done little to get the authorities to release the “political prisoners.” In a December speech, Ter-Petrosian charged that the West is “doing everything to destroy” his movement in hopes of speeding up the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
Yovanovitch rejected the opposition criticism. “We can share some of our concerns with the Armenian government and still move forward not only on those important democracy issues, not only in terms of trying to help Armenia build its economy, but also on important regional security issues such as Nagorno-Karabakh or a possible rapprochement with Turkey,” she said.
Commenting on Sarkisian’s almost one-year track record in office, Yovanovitch singled out his “bold” diplomatic overtures to Turkey that led to an unprecedented thaw in the historically strained Turkish-Armenian relations. She said although Washington is not involved in Turkish-Armenian diplomatic contacts it is ready to help the two neighbors normalize ties. That would be “really positive for stability in the entire region,” she said.
Ankara has warned that Obama will derail its ongoing dialogue with Yerevan if he delivers on his election campaign pledge to officially call the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey a genocide. The newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also gave such a promise to the Armenian-American community during the U.S. presidential race.
Successive U.S. administrations have until now avoided using the word genocide, anxious not to antagonize Turkey, a key NATO ally. Yovanovitch’s predecessor, John Evans, is believed to have been recalled by the Bush administration in 2005 for publicly recognizing “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
When asked whether she might follow Evans’s example, Yovanovitch said, “As a representative of the U.S. government, the U.S. people, I believe it’s my role … to uphold U.S. policy.” She could not say whether the U.S. policy on the genocide issue will change under the Obama administration.
The two main Armenian lobby groups in Washington hope that Obama will not backtrack on his campaign pledge. They plan to introduce a new draft genocide resolution to the U.S. Congress in the coming days. The White House has helped to block such resolutions in the past.