The Armenian National Committee of America is the preeminent organizations advocating for issues of importance to the Armenian-American community. Advancing the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, garnering aid to Armenia and Artsakh, as well as guiding U.S. policy on regional issues are some of the priorities that propel the organization and its grass-roots support across the United States. From the Hall of Congress, to the White House to state and local legislatures, the ANCA, through its national, Eastern and Western U.S. structures, has been fighting for justice and the Armenian Cause dating back to when Vahan Cardashian organized and empowered the burgeoning Armenian communities in the U.S. to advocate and advance the national aspirations of the Armenian Nation.
Recently, Droshak, the official organ of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Bureau, had an opportunity to discuss the inner workings of the organization, as well as its current pressing priorities with the ANCA National Chairman Raffi Hamparian. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Droshak: How does the ANCA work? What’s the organizational structure?
Raffi Hamparian: The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) proudly serves as the voice of the Armenian American community and our coalition partners and actively leverages the power of our community into pro-Armenian policies on a broad array of foreign policy priorities.
The ANCA is governed by a national board that consists of distinguished Armenian Americans from across the Eastern and Western regions of the United States, each with long years of experience, extensive records of advocacy leadership, and deep connections to Armenian communities from coast to coast.
The geographic diversity and deep community reach of Board members ensures that we effectively engage the strength of all Armenian Americans – not just those from one city or just one state. That’s vital because the vast majority of the ANCA’s work is done by tens of thousands of devoted individuals who volunteer as activists, serve as leaders, and donate financially to vigorously advance the Armenian Cause
Droshak: Traditionally the ANCA works with the legislative branch more widely. Why is that?
R.H.: Our focus is on getting results. Leveraging what we have – within the existing American political landscape – to get what we want.
Given the Constitutional freedoms we enjoy as Americans, the nature of checks and balances in our federal system, and the strategic priorities that have traditionally shaped U.S. foreign policy decision-making, we have very often sought to bring about constructive changes in Executive Branch policy through an array of means, including our direct engagement with the White House and federal agencies. More frequently, though, we have seen that it is our work with Congress that results in real legislative progress that translates into Administration policy. Two prominent examples would include the U.S. aid program to Artsakh, and the Section 907 restrictions on Azerbaijan.
It should be noted that the U.S. Constitution grants broad powers to the House and Senate not only to craft legislation – but to make decisions on federal funding for Armenia and Artsakh. The U.S. Senate is vital for our work because the Constitution gives the Senate the power to approve treaties and also nominees from the President for positions – like who will be the next U.S. Ambassador to Turkey or Azerbaijan. With respect to the Executive Branch – we are very active with our work with the U.S. Department of State and other cabinet level agencies.
I think that sometimes our work with the Legislative Branch – with over 535 members of the House and Senate – overshadows our work with the White House, the U.S. Department of State and other Executive Branch agencies. The truth is we are very active with both.
Our community is especially well suited for Congressional advocacy. We are a highly motivated, well-organized group – powerfully positioned across all 50 states and active in hundreds of Congressional districts. This broad-based presence is vital to generating constituent engagement on legislative issues. In fact, we are known in Washington, DC as a impactful group that can deliver thousands of quick, hard-hitting constituent contacts.
Our geographic dispersion – like so much of the diversity that characterizes our community – is a great strength. The fact that our communities – for example, in Fresno, CA, Watertown, MA, and Chicago, IL – are represented by powerful House members means that the ANCA has more influence and a better chance at advancing our policy goals. The U.S. Senate is largely the same story in states where we have Armenian American communities. The one difference – is that there are states with very small Armenian American communities – like Idaho – but even then – when our community is small but organized – we are able to be politically successful.
Droshak: Many in the foreign press, especially in Armenia, characterize the ANCA as “the Armenian Lobby.” Is the ANCA “the Armenian lobby” or is it a grass-roots organization?
R.H.: The ANCA is an American Lobby.
In exercising our rights – to assemble, to express our views, to petition our government, to seek redress for our grievances – we are acting as Americans.
Our enemies – the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan – seek to influence America as foreign interests. And so they want to somehow drag us down to their level, to make us seem less American or, perhaps, to make themselves seem less foreign. That is why they are always trying to make it look like the ANCA is a foreign lobby. The fact, of course, is that we have been working in America – as Americans – since the 1890s, with many families now into their fifth and even sixth generation of civic activism.
The inconvenient fact for Ankara and Baku is that we are Armenian Americans who are active in our nation’s democratic system of government. It’s no surprise, sadly, that the regimes that run Azerbaijan and Turkey don’t know much about what a real democracy looks like. But for those who know us and works with us in Washington, DC – they know that our work lobbiyng our elected representatives is as American as “apple pie.”
Droshak: The ANCA with both Republican and Democratic elected officials. What is the criteria for the ANCA to advance issues in a bi-partisan manner?
R.H.: The ANCA is in the business of advancing the Armenian Cause – a cause held dear by well close to two million Armenian Americans. While we work well with both major political parties – Democrats and Republicans – and Independents as well – we do not champion one political party over the other. There are plenty of activists in our community who are passionate Democrats and Republicans – and we respect their activism. That said – the ANCA believes in advancing our issues in a bi-partisan way – working thoughtfully with both Republicans and Democrats to deliver positive results for both Armenia and Artsakh. The near-unanimous votes in the House (405-11) and Senate (100-0) on the Armenian Genocide Resolution speaks powerfully to the wisdom of our approach.
Droshak: What are some of ANCA’s achievements in the areas of Armenian Genocide recognition, securing U.S. assistance to Armenia and the international recognition of Artsakh and its right to self-determination?
R.H.: The near unanimous vote in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate last year was no miracle – it was the direct result of all the grassroots work the ANCA put into this human rights issue for decades. When you look at the activism across the United States on working to have Congress recognize the Armenian Genocide – every major effort points back to the ANCA and our thousands of volunteer supporters – our gamavors – around the United States.
With respect to Arstakh – the ANCA has successfully advanced a bold agenda to support the freedom and independence of the Republic of Artsakh. Our ANCA regional bodies and local ANCA chapters have been on the cutting edge in securing recognition of Artsakh’s independence from states across America. This is no small task – and a tribute to the ANCA’s unbending dedication to the people of Artsakh – who in many cases gave their lives so that they could live free from Azerbaijani oppression.
We have worked on the following matters related to Artsakh over the past several years.
First, we have successfully advocated for direct U.S. aid to Artsakh to deliver funds to the HALO Trust for demining efforts across Artsakh.
Second, we have successfully advanced a peace-focused initiative – the Royce-Engel plan – that highlights Azerbaijan’s war-mongering.
Third, the ANCA worked with our Congressional stakeholders to advance the introduction of the Artsakh Travel and Communications Act – that seeks to formalize the fact that federal officials in both the Legislative and Executive Branch should be traveling and communicating with their counterparts in Artsakh.
Fourth, the ANCA has regularly hosted Artsakh officials on Capitol Hill – to make sure Artsakh has a place at the table in policy discussions in Washington, DC.
Fifth, the ANCA has encouraged Members of Congress to visit Artsakh – which unfortunately – is not encouraged by the U.S. Department of State.
Sixth, the ANCA led the effort to block the transfer of the Iron Dome weapon system from being sold by Israel to Azerbaijan.
Seventh, the ANCA successfully worked with our friends in the U.S. Senate to block the nomination of Azerbaijan cheerleader Matt Bryza to serve as America’s ambassador to Baku.
And the last example that I thought might be helpful to share is that the ANCA has worked to deliver over $45 million in direct U.S. aid to Artsakh – and we are redoubling our advocacy so that America continues supporting humanitarian efforts in a free and independent Artsakh.
On the subject of aid to Armenia – the ANCA has been on the frontlines of securing over $2.5 billion in U.S. aid to Armenia over the past three decades.
This U.S. aid has been used in a variety of ways – from building irrigation and rural roads in the Ararat Valley – to supporting women’s healthcare centers throughout the country. We were proud last year to actively support an amendment offered by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) to boost U.S. aid to Armenia. Happily, thanks to our work with Congresswoman Speier and over 200 other Members of Congress – the Speier Amendment was adopted and this Federal Fiscal Year the Republic of Armenia is getting more U.S. aid. That is just one example – out of hundreds – of how the ANCA stands strong in Washington, DC for the people of Armenia.
Droshak: What contacts does the ANCA have with the White House, given its pursuit of Armenian Genocide recognition by the president?
R.H.: We remain engaged, as we have for decades, with President Trump’s National Security Council and the State Department on all our policy priorities, while recognizing that the policy-making process currently in place represents a considerable departure from past administrations. In this non-orthodox setting, we are pursuing direct and indirect means to influence policy – relying at times on friendly Republican legislators and other stakeholders to advance good policies and block bad ones.
Droshak: How have been the ANCA’s relations with the Armenian Embassy in Washington?
R.H.: Our relationship with the Armenian Embassy is a constructive one. The current Ambassador is a seasoned and effective diplomat, with a clear understanding of his mission. In the past, Armenia has sent diplomats to Washington in a partisan political capacity or with ambitions for some sort of community leadership role. This has been a mistake. The Armenian Embassy has every right to speak for Armenia, but no right to speak for Armenian Americans – to serve as community leaders, or to engage in political activity on American shores. These are important distinctions.
Moving forward, I am confident we will continue to see what we see now – which is serious work being done by a serious Armenian Ambassador in Washington, DC.
Droshak: What are the current efforts by ANCA regarding the issue of recognition of and reparations for the Armenian Genocide.
R.H.: Our strategic aim is to move the United States from a position of obstructing justice for the Armenian Genocide to one that empowers Armenians to secure the justice we are owed for this crime. Congressional recognition was a major step in this direction. The White House rejecting Turkey’s gag-rule will be another. From there, we will press forward for pro-active U.S. policies that increase the bilateral and international costs of Turkeys’ denials – isolating Ankara and undermining both its will and capacity to block progress toward justice. Parallel to this, we will continue to break down barriers preventing Americans from seeking legal redress for genocide-era claims, and – more broadly, to advancing, alongside the Armenian Legal Center, legal remedies at the individual, community, and, ultimately, national levels.
Droshak: What are the ANCA’s current priorities?
R.H.: The ANCA’s Board approved priorities for 2020 include a broad array of strategic policy initiatives, all aligned with our overarching aim of a united, free, and independent Armenia – at peace in its region, allied with the United States, and integrated into the international community of nations.
To support Armenia’s economic growth, the ANCA is working to advance a U.S.-Armenia Double Tax Treaty. Right now, Armenia has no double tax treaty with the United States.
To strengthen Armenia’s educational system, the ANCA has worked to promote a $145 million Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math grant for Armenia’s public schools through America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. We want Armenia’s public school students to benefit from a grant like this – which holds the promise of rebuilding over 100 schools across Armenia.
To encourage individuals to retire to Armenia, the ANCA has advanced an initiative for a U.S.-Armenia Social Security Totalization Agreement. Such an agreement would help harmonize the old-age pension benefits between Armenia and America – which would certainly make it easier for Armenian Americans to retire in their historic homeland – which would be a wonderful new trend.
The ANCA has also worked to explore instituting a direct flight between Los Angeles and Yerevan by conducting the most extensive survey ever conducted on this topic. Such a direct flight would have enormous economic benefits for Armenia – with the prospect for more tourists and business – traveling between Yerevan and Los Angeles.
There are many more priorities to report on – but the last topic I would raise here would be the ANCA’s signature leadership programs for young Armenian Americans. We are always strengthening our summer internship program – the ANCA Leo Sarkissian Summer Internship Program, through which remarkably talented Armenian American college students get hands-on experience in advancing the Armenian Cause in Washington, DC. We are also boosting our efforts with respect to the Hovig Apo Saghdejian ANCA Capital Gateway Program. This remarkable career placement program has launched hundreds of public policy careers for recent Armenian American graduates – in fields ranging from politics and government to media and advocacy.