ENCINO—The US Ambassador to Armenia, Marie Yovanovitch participated in a town hall meeting on June 26, hosted by the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Church at Ferrahian High School’s Avedissian Hall in Encino, California. Designed to educate and inform Ambassador Yovanovitch about the Armenian-Americans concerns in connection with US foreign policy, the event was one of several community engagements that included public forums with Armenian-Americans in New York and Boston. A broad cross-section of the community attended the event on Friday to express their opinions and concerns regarding US-Armenia relations to the newly appointed Ambassador. Present and participating in the public forum were several current and former Armenian National Committee interns and volunteers.
“This meeting provided a valuable opportunity to actively engage in the US-Armenia dialogue,” said Hovsep Hajibekyan, a University of California, Berkeley senior currently interning with the Armenian National Committee-Western Region (ANC-WR), who attended the town-hall meeting. “It was a rare chance to meet our Ambassador to Armenia and address our thoughts, concerns and frustrations directly to her. There was clearly high interest in today’s event, judging from the packed hall, and that is very encouraging.”
After her opening remarks, Yovanovitch responded to many pointed questions from the audience, many of which were critical of the US position on recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the Obama Administration’s proposed reduction of aid to Armenia for 2010.
“I think there are many disappointments and lingering doubts in the Armenian-American community regarding the new Administration and its policies in the Caucuses region,” commented Christina Toroyan, a volunteer with the ANC-WR and a student at California State University, Northridge.
“Today’s tough questions and the audience’s uneasy mood reflected those doubts,” she said, recalling an audience member who asked the Ambassador to identify a single moral or political advantage that resulted from America’s continued refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. During the town hall event, Yovanovitch responded by insisting that President Obama has gone further than his predecessor with his April 24, 2009 statement.
The Ambassador often prefaced her responses with apologies and acknowledgments that the responses she would give would most likely be unsatisfactory to the public before which she stood. During her remarks, Ambassador Yovanovitch never utilized the word “genocide” and struggled to explain how the US Administration favored increasing direct aid to Azerbaijan and Georgia, in spite of both countries’ flawed democratic credentials and their expressed belligerence against their own ethnic Armenian communities.
Shant Taslakian, a former ANCA Leo Sarkisian Intern and law student at the University of California, Hastings was not surprised by the Ambassador’s equivocal answers. “I wish she was a little more candid and clear in her answers, especially regarding the decrease of aid to Armenia, but as a diplomat who simply represents US views her style was expected.”
Hajibekyan agreed, “Yovanovitch only articulated the ambiguities that exist in US policy on such questions as aid to Armenia and the genocide issue. Our hope is that by engaging the Ambassador, we can make our voices heard and affect change on higher levels of the government.”
Community members also expressed their frustration with President Obama’s failure to properly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. During his presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama had won overwhelming support from the Armenian-American community with a strongly worded promise to unequivocally refer to the Armenian Genocide as such. Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has yet to fulfill that campaign promise.
“Genocide is a powerful legal term that properly characterizes the events of 1915,” said Hajibekyan, who supported Obama in 2008. “The president had a great opportunity to clearly state his position and follow his election pledge. Instead, he prevaricated. Yovanovitch’s poor answers today reflected the Administration’s policies.”
Hrag Melkonian, a student at the College of the Canyons and an activist with the Armenian Youth Federation, had even stronger words for the President.
“The fact that our President has constantly used words such as ‘justice’, ‘equality’, and ‘truth’ in his speeches, but refused to properly characterize the Armenian Genocide is unacceptable and shames me as an American,” Melkonian explained.
“This amounts to defying everything that he and this country have said and is meant to stand for,” adding that he hopes the Ambassador will convey the community’s disappointment with the Administration when she holds meetings in Washington, DC.
The town-hall meeting on Friday was the first time Yovanovitch met with the Armenian-American community of the greater Los Angeles area in her official capacity as Ambassador. Yovanovitch’s nomination was confirmed in August 2008 by the U.S. Senate. The previous nominee, Richard Hoagland, was withdrawn following his controversial statements denying the Armenian Genocide during Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. Yovanovitch is scheduled conclude her visit to the United Sates with high-level meetings with officials from the State Department and the White House.
“It is our right and obligation as concerned Americans to have a dialogue with our government regarding issues of concern to our community,” noted Hrag Melkonian following the meeting with the Ambassador. “I am pleased the community, specifically young Armenian-Americans, took advantage of this opportunity and asked our nation’s ranking diplomat in Armenia direct and important questions regarding America’s foreign policy.”