President Barack Obama’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to Armenia has praised the Armenian government’s recent gestures to the domestic opposition and reaffirmed Washington’s view that the onus is on Turkey to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations.
John Heffern, a career diplomat, spoke of “positive signs” in Armenia’s political life as he testified during a confirmation hearing at the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate late on Wednesday.
“They [the Armenian authorities] have made some useful steps in the last six months that have been helpful in giving us some indication that the next elections in 2012 and 2013 will hopefully be better in meeting international standards,” he said.
Heffern cited the recent release of all opposition members remaining in prison, the lifting of an effective government ban on opposition rallies in Yerevan’s Liberty Square as well as a renewed inquiry into the 2008 post-election unrest that was ordered by President Serzh Sarkisian in late April.
The diplomat also indicated the Obama administration’s satisfaction with Sarkisian’s policy of rapprochement with Turkey that resulted in the signing in October 2009 of two Turkish-Armenian protocols envisaging the normalization of bilateral ties. In particular, he said that like official Yerevan, Washington stands for their unconditional ratification by the Turkish and Armenian parliaments.
“We remain committed to do whatever we can to encourage the two parties to get the protocols back on track,” he said. “The Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] has talked to both parties regularly.
“Secretary Clinton has made it clear that the ball is in Turkey’s court and that we hope and expect that they will be able to find a way to work together to resume that.”
In other remarks that could complicate his confirmation, Heffern stopped short of describing the World War One-era massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. He said "the characterization of those events is a policy decision that is made by the president of the United States and that policy is enunciated in his April 24 Remembrance Day statement."
Obama declined to use the word genocide in that statement, contrary to his promises given to the influential Armenian-American community during the last U.S. presidential race.
Heffern’s statement irked Robert Menendez, a pro-Armenian member of the committee. “We have a historical knowledge of the facts that we accept would amount to genocide. But we are
unwilling to reference it as genocide,” he said.
“And so I find it very difficult to send diplomats of the United States to a country in which they will go – and I hope you will go, as some of your predecessors have – to a genocide commemoration and yet never be able to use the word genocide,” Menendez added, in what looked like a veiled threat to prevent Heffern’s appointment.
The New Jersey Democrat already blocked in 2007 congressional confirmation of Richard Hoagland, another career diplomat nominated for the top U.S. diplomatic post in Yerevan, for the same reason.
The two main Armenian-American lobby groups were quick to welcome Menendez’s remarks. But they did not say whether they think the Senate committee should approve Heffern’s candidacy.