By Emil Danielyan
Senior US and Armenian government officials agreed Thursday on the use of continuing American assistance to Armenia which they said will increasingly reflect its government’s proposals.
“We agreed to coordinate the priorities of the use of that assistance on a regular basis through the [Armenian] ministry of finance and through our meetings every six months,” Ambassador Bill Taylor, the American co-chairman of the bilateral Task Force on economic cooperation, said at the end of its two-day meeting in Yerevan.
The meeting was dominated by discussions on the $90 million economic aid package for the financial year 2002 approved by the US Congress last fall. It also discussed US-Armenian cooperation against international terrorist financing.
“What we did over the last two days was to focus on that 90 million dollars of cooperative work and assistance, and successfully came to agreement on how to use those funds most beneficially for the people of Armenia,” Taylor said.
“We agreed that US assistance to Armenia should be in line with the Armenian government’s poverty reduction program,” said Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian, the Armenian co-chairman of the bilateral group.
The task force was created in January 2000 with the aim of ensuring better use of American aid and facilitating bilateral commercial links. It comprises senior officials from various government agencies of the two countries.
“We’ve been meeting in this format for two years…and I think it’s the most productive meeting that we have had,” Taylor, who coordinates Washington’s aid to Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics, declared.
“To a very large extent, we have agreed with the priorities presented to us by the various ministries of the Armenian government that have,” he added.
The Task Force discussed specific assistance requests from six Armenian government agencies, including the ministries of agriculture, urban development and trade and industry.
Armenia has been a lading per-capita recipient of American economic aid since independence. Its total amount is expected to reach one-and-a-half billion dollars this year.
Overall assistance from all US government agencies was approximately $110 million last year. Roughly 85 percent of the money was spent on development programs and private sector assistance. The remaining 15 percent was allocated to humanitarian programs.
The Armenian government wants the aid programs to facilitate its declared efforts to combat poverty which remains widespread despite several consecutive years of economic growth. Khachatrian, speaking at a joint news conference with Taylor, admitted that even the record-high growth rate of nine percent registered in 2001 has not reduced the huge income disparity in Armenia.
“That [growth] is very important for the future of Armenia and also for the well-being of its people,” the US diplomat argued. “The challenge that both the prime minister and the minister of finance highlighted was now to broaden that growth so that it improves the lives of all Armenians across the country.”
Taylor said Washington remains committed to boosting Armenia’s “energy security” through the diversification of its energy sources and a more efficient power generation.
The planned construction of the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline was discussed by the Task Force in this regard, with Armenian officials reporting on progress towards the implementation of the $120 million project.
US officials have previously voiced their opposition to the project, a stance which reflects tense relations between Washington and Tehran. But they were less categorical on Thursday.
“It’s too early to comment on how this project reacts to our law, but in general we are opposed to any investment in Iran’s energy sector,” US Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway told RFE/RL.
Also on the agenda of the intergovernmental group were commercial issues, including Yerevan’s request to the US Department of Commerce to increase the import quota for semi-processed raw tobacco from Armenia. No agreement was signed on another key issue, the avoidance of double taxation of businesses operating in each other’s countries. Officials said a bilateral treaty regulating the matter needs further consideration.
On Wednesday, two leading pro-Armenian members of the US House of Representatives wrote to Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, urging him to speed up work on the treaty. Representatives Frank Pallone and Joe Knollenberg, who co-head the Congressional Armenian Caucus, noted “significant US interest in investing in Armenia,” according to an Armenian-American lobbying group that supports them.
Meanwhile, minister Khachatrian said that during the Task Force meeting he and other Armenian officials pledged to fully cooperate with the US government against international financing of anti-Western terror groups. “The Armenian side assured that if it discovers that any of its banks has accounts that could possibly be used for terrorist acts, the list of which has been presented by the American side, they will be immediately frozen,” he said.
In Khachatrian words, the authorities will make relevant changes in Armenia’s banking regulations. He said they will also tighten customs controls at the border to prevent transit of weapons of mass destruction through Armenian territory.