WASHINGTON–A senior State Department official came under intense questioning Friday over the Administration’s unwillingness to confront Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s escalating threats to launch his nation’s growing military arsenal against Nagorno Karabakh "at any time," reported the Armenian National Committee of America.
Representative Chris Smith’s questioning took place during a hearing called by the Congressional Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission) to examine the impact of the recent Armenian elections on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the overall state of US-Armenia relations. A leading Congressional voice on foreign policy and an energetic defender of human rights, the New Jersey legislator pressed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza to explain the State Department’s response to threats of renewed Azerbaijani aggression, which he quoted from at length for the benefit of his colleagues, the panel of witnesses, and a standing-room only audience gathered for the hearing.
Noting that Azerbaijani "war drums are beating," he explained that it was only natural for Armenia’s to take a defensive position against a potential "sucker punch" from Azerbaijan. He asked, pointedly, "what clear and totally broadcast in advance penalty would Azerbaijan suffer if it initiated hostilities?"
Bryza, who devoted the bulk of his testimony to the elections and the overall state of democracy in Armenia, sidestepped Congressman Smith’s question, choosing instead to speak in broad terms about US mediation efforts.
"In terms of penalty, I wouldn’t want to speculate on that because all the various scenarios are so unpredictable. What I can say is that any resumption of armed hostility in and around Karabakh would be tragic–tragic for everybody. Absolute disaster. Who the heck knows what the outcome would be of the fighting, but as I said before, I think any fighting would lead to the perpetuation of the current situation."
Bryza noted that Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) had on several occasions impressed upon him the importance of the US forcefully challenging Azerbaijan’s war rhetoric. Calling portions of the border between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan a "Caucasus Hiroshima," he noted that he shared Representative Smith’s concern regarding regional tension and noted that both the Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents were scheduled to hold Nagorno Karabakh talks in the near future.
Also testifying alongside Bryza, were Vigen Sargsian, a senior assistant to the President of Armenia, Serge Sarkisian, and Arman Grigorian, a spokesman for former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian who teaches at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The hearing was chaired by Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and included the participation of the Commission’s Co-Chairman, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).
Sargsian welcomed the interest shown by Armenia’s Congressional friends in the elections and, in his remarks, placed the recent difficulties in the broader context of the growing US-Armenia relationship and the steady progress of Armenia’s democratic development. He updated the Commission on the steps toward reconciliation underway in Armenia and invited outside assistance for inquiries into the unrest.
"At their heart," he pointed out, "the challenges we are confronted with today have less to do with the conduct or even the outcome of the February 19th elections–which, while imperfect, reflected the will of the Armenian electorate–and more to do with efforts by an element of the opposition that, having lost at the ballot box, sought to challenge this outcome through illegal and ultimately extra-constitutional means."
Grigorian, in his remarks, offered a sweeping indictment of the Armenian government and the conduct of the elections, setting conditions for President Ter-Petrosian’s willingness to engage in dialogue with four of the five major Armenian political parties that have entered into a broad-based coalition agreement.
"We understand that we will have to negotiate with the regime, even if we do not and will not accept its legitimacy… They must come to terms with the idea that the dismantling of the current kleptocratic system, in one way or another, will have to be the purpose of these negotiations, or the negotiations will have no purpose."