During her recent visit to Los Angeles, the US Ambassador to Armenia, Marie Yovanovitch, expressed interest in discussing US policy in Armenia with Asbarez. Overall, her visit to the Western Region communities were met with skepticism, given that she generally reiterated previous positions articulated by the State Department. Asbarez’s Allen Yekikian sat down with Yovanovitch at the Glendale Public Library on October 14 to discuss Washington’s position on Armenian-American issues and the State Department’s approach to Armenia and surrounding neighbors. Below is the interview in its entirety.
Allen Yekikian: Is mentioning the Armenian Genocide still a firing offense for U.S. diplomats? Do you fear retaliation by the State Department and a fate similar to your predecessor Ambassador Evans, if you were to speak honestly about the Armenian Genocide? What actions would you take against any of the employees at the U.S. embassy in Yerevan if they spoke honestly about the Armenian Genocide?
Marie Yovanovitch: Well I think that US policy is very clear and I think that all US government employees–our job is to uphold the US policy and represent US policy, for example in Iraq or on Israel, there is only one US policy and that’s the President’s policy. Nobody would expect that there should be be 15 different views about the way forward and the same thing is true on this issue.
A.Y.: Does the U.S. have military or economic interests in connection to Turkey that influence its decision on whether to use the word “genocide,” when discussing the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-1923?
M.Y.: Obviously Turkey is a NATO ally it’s been a longstanding partner for the US. But i think that when the President looks at this issue and makes these decisions, he takes a lot of issues into account. I think if you look at his statement from April 24, I think it’s pretty clear what his views are and that he thinks it’s important to have a clear and full and just accounting of the facts. He points to the discussions that Armenians and Turks are having on these issues and how important that is.
A.Y.: In a July 2008 letter to then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, Matthew Reynolds, Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, wrote, “We indeed hold Ottoman officials responsible for those crimes.” What does the U.S. government mean, when it says it holds Ottoman officials “responsible for those crimes,” which as you just said the President has characterized in his April statement as brutal massacres of more than a million people?
M.Y.: Well I think it’s pretty clear what we mean by that. We hold them responsible.
A.Y: What does that entail. Responsibility for a crime in the US entails punishment, jail time, legal action or fines. So what does the US government consider as punishment in this case?
M.Y.: I’d refer you back to Assistant Secretary Reynolds’ letter on that.
A.Y.: The President’s statement in April clearly characterized everything that encompasses Genocide but fell short of using the word. What does it take for the President to call it what it is? If the Republic of Turkey recognized the Armenian Genocide tomorrow, would the United States then also do the same?
M.Y.: All of our policies, whether they are domestic or foreign are the President’s policies and he makes those decisions. You are asking me a couple of hypothetical questions so all I can say is we can’t really answer hypothetical questions; it’s really up to the President to make that decision.
A.Y.: Did you ever meet with the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey to discuss ending Turkey’s blockade, as you committed to do during your confirmation hearing?
M.Y.: I meet with the ambassadors and others in all of the embassies in the region, so Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey because, obviously, there are a lot of issues that we’ve discussed and we certainly discussed these issues with Ambassador Jeffery when he was in place and now Charge d’affairs Doug Siloman.
A.Y.: A little while back we had the flotilla incident with Turkey and Israel and the blockade of aid ships going to Gaza. The US took a position on that. Why hasn’t the US taken a position on the nearly two decade-long illegal blockade of Armenia?
M.Y.: We think that the border should be opened immediately and without preconditions. We’ve encouraged both sides to move forward and ratify the protocols so I think our position is pretty clear.
A.Y.: Armenia began the rapprochement process between Turkey and Armenia on the principles of immediate relations without preconditions but it quickly evolved to include a whole slew of preconditions that eventually stalled the talks as a result of Turkey’s refusal to move forward without a resolution of the Karabakh conflict favoring Azerbaijan.
M.Y.: Yeah, right, that’s the only one I’m aware of.
A.Y.: Right, but Turkey also requires Armenia end any international efforts for Genocide recognition. So What…
M.Y.: I’m not aware of that.
A.Y.: Well going back to the Karabakh precondition, what is the US government’s position on that and how is it dealing with that since it was a key broker of the rapprochement process.
M.Y.: I know that this is a controversial issue in the Armenian community here, and it’s certainly been the topic of much discussion in Yerevan–and Armenia more broadly. We think that it’s very important to move forward; we understand that it’s very difficult, but our position is that there should be normalization without preconditions. We’ve said that publicly and I can assure you that we have said that privately. We hope that just as President Sarkisian indicated in his statement in April–that at some point the Turks would be ready to come back to the table and start moving that process forward again–and that’s something that we are ready to assist the parties on if they need our assistance.
A.Y.: So does official Washington consider Turkey’s requirement to resolve Karabakh a precondition.
M.Y.: We don’t believe there should be any linkage and there should be a movement forward in terms of normalization, opening the border, diplomatic relations, ordinary commerce–directly, not through third countries. Secretary Clinton was very clear when she was in Yerevan when she said the ball is in the Turkish court. And we believe that President Sarkisian was visionary, very brave, in terms of moving forward on this issue. Because he knew it was going to be controversial, he knew it was going to be difficult and yet he undertook that step. We hope that at some point we can move forward again and I think it’s certainly clear to all the parties that we are ready to help that process.
A.Y.: Why was it that when Secretary of State Clinton visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Dzidzernagapert, earlier this year she did so in a personal and private capacity but when she visited the Alley of Martyrs in Baku, which is in memory of several dozen Azerbaijanis who died in fighting with the Soviet troops who were sent into Baku to stop anti-Armenian pogroms of 1988, she made that visit in her official capacity and in a highly public way? Are you concerned that the Secretary’s actions represent a double standard that demeans the U.S. response to the mass murder and dispossession of an entire civilization?
M.Y: I was with the Secretary when she went to Dzidzernagapert and it was a really moving moment. She went to pay her respects to those who died and we were greeted by Haik Demoyan, the director of the Museum and Memorial complex, and he was able to provide context and explain to the Secretary what she was seeing, what various things represented and so forth. I think it was very important that she went there and it was certainly very moving. Obviously you’ve seen the footage on TV and the photos. We wanted to keep it as dignified as possible and I think it was important that she went and I’m really glad that she did go.
A.Y.: Do you believe there can be a real reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, without a truthful and just resolution of the Armenian Genocide?
M.Y.: I think these are all very difficult processes. When people come together and talk about whatever it is that students talk about when they are together or journalists and professors might have professional issues they might want to talk about, other types of professionals may have issues that sort of create this space for dialogue. I think it’s really hard to go back in history and discuss some of these very difficult, very emotional, very difficult issues when there’s not a basis for trust. And I think right now, on both sides of the border, because that border has been closed for so long because of that history, there isn’t a lot of knowledge on both sides of the border about the other. So I think it’s important to try to create a space for dialogue and when you move forward with those dialogues, gradually one takes on some of the harder issues.
I think if you look at the evolution in Turkey over the last few years, there’s clearly an interest in the issue of normalization and so fort. I’m not saying this is a topic in every household, but certainly in intellectual circles, this is a topic that is addressed. I think there is a shift in the dialogue, where Turks are ready to ask some questions of themselves. I’m not saying that they agree with Armenians, but I think there is a shift in the dialogue and that’s a beginning. And I think it’s important for Armenians and Turks to come together and discuss many issues to create a basis of trust to also talk about other issues.
A.Y.: Why has the Obama Administration, during its first two years in office, called for reductions in the level of economic aid actually provided to Armenia?
M.Y.: I Think all you need to do is look at the general budget picture. The Armenia budget is not separate from that process. But I am glad that the assistance to Armenia is among one of the highest per capita in the world. We’re pleased that we were able to maintain $45 million for fiscal year 2010 and as you know we don’t have a final budget yet for this fiscal year but we are hoping we could keep it up there. We do a lot of important things with our assistance budget, whether it’s in terms of supporting Armenia’s economic growth or supporting democratic development, whether it’s on the health side or the social services side, through pension reforms and so forth. So certainly, speaking as the American Ambassador to Armenia, we hope those budget levels will be maintained. But again, we can’t divorce what we are doing in Armenia with the overall budget picture in the United States.
A.Y.: By that same account, Azerbaijan continues to receive large amounts of US aid, particularly military aid, freeing up its budget to allocate more funds to its military. Why do our tax dollars fund military aid to Azerbaijan at the same time that its government is both threatening and actually using its military to start a new war against Nagorno Karabakh? Couldn’t that money, which is bolstering the Azeri military machine, be better spent on democratization efforts in both countries. Why does the US, and in particular me as a tax paying citizen, continue to support a country threatening war?
M.Y.: That’s a fair question. We also provide a lot of assistance to Russia and most of the assistance to Russia and most of our assistance to Azerbaijan goes to democratization programs because we feel that it’s important to help those countries with their ongoing transitions to democracy. In the case of Azerbaijan, I think it would be clearly in Armenia’s interests if Azerbaijan moves forward in that democratic process. Azerbaijan, I think, gets somewhere to the tune of half the assistance we provide Armenia and I think there’s a consensus on the part of Congress and the executive branch that this is a good use of our money–to try and help Azerbaijan make that transition.
You also asked about military funding, we provide funding to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. We ensure that that funding does not raise tensions in the area and destabilize the area and so forth. One of the reasons we give assistance to Azerbaijan in this respect is that in a post-911 world we have important counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics programs with Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea.
A.Y.: You mentioned the US gives military aid to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the President has also exercised his right to waive Section 907, and has not yet released the report that justifies providing military aid to Azerbaijan. Is there any reason that this report should not be shared with the public? If not, can you instruct the U.S. Embassy to release this report?
M.Y.: Well you know, we can take that question and get back to you. Obviously, the US embassy in Yerevan wouldn’t be the one that writes that report and if that’s an important answer for you we can ask someone at the State Department to get back to you.
A.Y.: What signal is the President sending when the Administration sends Azerbaijan’s military more aid than Armenia, particularly when Azerbaijan’s leaders are threatening to use their army to start a new war? You mentioned that the US takes steps to ensure its funding does not destabilize the area, but it’s clear with recent events that Azerbaijan’s President is in fact raising tensions in the region with repeated violations of the cease-fire agreement with Karabakh that results in deaths on the border.
M.Y.: Well, I think it’s fairly straight forward and I understand that perhaps you may not agree with this but we were very careful with the assistance that we provide. Most of the assistance that we provide both countries is actually in the form of training. We have important missions with the country of Azerbaijan. It has a strategic location on the Caspian Sea and as I said in a post-911 world, we need to work with Azerbaijan on important issues of counter terrorism and narcotics.
A.Y.: Armenia is similarly important in this post-911 world. It has sent troops to serve alongside American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, and consistently called for stronger military cooperation with the United States. What obstacles do you see preventing broader U.S.-Armenia military cooperation?
M.Y.: Actually I think that what we’ve seen over the last couple years is a strengthening of the bilateral military to military relationship and I think it’s a real positive and bright spot in our overall bilateral relationship. We do many things, both through the NATO partnership as well as bilaterally and I’ll give you a couple examples. On the NATO side, there was a NATO disaster response exercise in Armenia recently and that’s really important because that’s the way you train working with your neighbors and so forth working with your neighbors on how to respond to a disaster. And I think it was great that there was so much participation by NATO and the partner countries.
Turkey had observers there so I think it was a real plus. On the bilateral side, we are working with Armenia with US experts through a NATO program with its strategic defense review. And that’s a new way of thinking for a post-Soviet military–trying to determine what does it want its military to look like, what does it need to accomplish those goals, and putting the budget piece into place too. You’ve probably seen Secretary Gates’ comments about the US military, saying we need to cut by 10 percent because we can’t do all the tasks we want to do and the same thing is probably true with most militaries. So this is a strategic defense review that kind of helps the Armenian military leadership think strategically about where it’s going.
A.Y.: Why do you think the people of Nagorno Karabagh have voted repeatedly against being ruled by Azerbaijan?
M.Y.: I don’t want to speak for the people of Karabakh, you have to ask others.
A.Y.: Throughout the Cold War, America argued against the foreign rule Moscow imposed on the peoples of the Soviet bloc, yet, today, we defend the very artificial borders drawn by Stalin to deny freedom to the Armenian people of Nagorno Karabakh? Why is the U.S. defending borders imposed by Stalin? If this principle had been applied during the struggle for freedom by the American colonies, we would still be part of England.
M.Y.: Obviously I’ve heard this question many times during my time here in the United States, and in general. Obviously self-determination is an important principle, but so is territorial integrity. If that wasn’t one of the bedrocks of the international system you can imagine what we would be dealing with. So I think it’s important to try to move forward with negotiations to find a political solution to the NK conflict–one that is acceptable to both sides. But you know, that’s going to require compromises on both sides as well.
A.Y.: Speaking of territorial integrity and self-determination, most of the world’s countries today were formed because of their exercise of the principle of self-determination, including the most recent–Kosov. Please explain the obvious inconsistency in the US not advocating, let alone supporting, the self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and the recognition of the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic when it actively worked, over Serbia’s opposition, in support the independence and self-determination of Kosovo? Also, please comment on the recent International Court of Justice ruling upholding the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
M.Y.: Again, obviously every Armenian I talk to, whether it’s here or in Armenia, shares your view that Kosovo should be a precedent for NK. But I think when we look at the situation, every conflict is unique and challenging and different in its own way. You can’t just impose solutions onto another.
Obviously we want to use the lessons of history, the lessons that different negotiations can help us with and we want to use those lessons learned in finding a solution to the NK conflict. There are many possible precedents out there. There are many conflicts, I can think of a couple right now, that Armenians would not think relevant, but perhaps the Azerbaijanis would. So where we find ourselves is discussing which precedent would be the most useful and we will impose on NK as an NK solution as opposed to trying to find a solution to NK. I think that’s what we need to focus on and that’s where the efforts of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs are.
A.Y.: Why is the US government looking so far away for precedents when there are three fairly recent historical precedents that have defined the reality on the ground between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in 1905, 1918, and 1991. In all three cases, three conflicts flared out between the Armenians and Turkic people of the region over the same exact reason, with the same people, and in the same territory. And the underlying cause for all three conflicts was denial of the right to self-determination to the Armenians of Karabakh. Why does the US Government, and the Minsk Group in particular, not look to these precedents, when working toward a resolution of the conflict?
M.Y.: I think the Minsk Group Co-Chairs are looking at the entire situation and I think what we need to do is move forward with a political solution with the negotiation that will actually lead to a just and lasting peace.
A.Y.: That “just and lasting peace,” according to the Minsk Group co-chairs, is articulated in the Madrid Principles, which call on Nagorno Karabagh to make specific, up-front, and irrevocable land and security concessions in exchange for a vague promise that Azerbaijan will agree to an as-yet undefined process to address its status at some point in the future. Why is this a good deal for Nagorno Karabagh, which in fact is not even a full participant to the peace process?
M.Y.: Because a decision was made a while ago that Armenia could represent NK. I think the Minsk Group negotiators were just in Karabakh. They have frequent consultations with the NK authorities, as well as with people in NK to find out what they are thinking and so forth. I think that there’s general recognition that a just and lasting solution to the conflict is not going to be possible without input from the NK folks. So I think that at some point they will be brought into the process, but that’s going to have to be something that all the parties agree to, including Azerbaijan. Clearly we are not at that point yet, so in the interim, the Co-Chairs are frequently going to the region in order to find out the views of the NK authorities.
A.Y.: Moving onto the Armenians of Georgia, why has the U.S. government remained silent in the face of abuses against the Armenian Church, unfair restrictions on Armenian schools, and all other forms of cultural, social, political and economic pressure intended to intimidate and ultimately drive away the region’s historic Armenian population, particularly in Javakhk, which the Georgian Foreign Minister recently said does not exist?
M.Y.: I was recently in Javakhk, traveling with Ambassador Bass who is our ambassador to Georgia. It was obviously very interesting for me. We met with a number of local government authorities as well as folks who were living in the region and of course many of them are Armenian. I can’t really agree with the premise of your question that there is a purposeful campaign to drive out Armenians.
Those that I spoke with actually felt their lives were getting better and they pointed to two things. One was gasification, that over the last five years the government of Georgia have made a concerted effort to hook up certain cities in outlying areas with gas. That makes a tremendous difference to the quality of life. Not everyone has this yet but that was something a lot of people pointed to.
The second thing was that was the road that was being built. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is building a road to the Armenian border and having just driven that road–parts of it are completed and parts of it aren’t. What a difference in terms of bringing your crops to market in Tbilisi–hugely beneficial to the people of that area, especially now since they are being hired to build those roads. In the future, they can use that road for commerce and so forth. That’s US government money, US tax-payer money.
The government of Georgia is building secondary and tertiary roads off of that main road to the villages. Now all of the villages going to have great roads leading to them–no. But again, it’s better than it was and it’s a step forward.
The US Government has quite a number of programs–administered by the US Embassy in Georgia–in Javakhk. We’ve got $220 million dollars of programming, that includes the road, but across the board. That includes helping with democratic transition in terms of economic growth and so forth and that benefits the people in the region, including Armenians.
A.Y.: I was also recently there in August. I did see the roads, they are nicely paved. But I saw a different picture than what you are describing. In fact, non of the people working on the road that runs directly through Javakhk and to the Armenian border are Armenian, despite the fact that Akhalkalak, for example, is almost entirely populated by Armenians. Furthermore, Armenian schools have been taken over by the state, which has imposed mandatory reductions in hours per week they are permitted to teach Armenian language.
M.Y.: If I can just say, I did meet Armenians who were working on the road and I specifically asked the question, whose getting hired. Locals are getting hired. Most folks in that part of Georgia are Armenian. We certainly try to encourage Georgia to invest in that region. In fact, what we’ve seen–I hear you telling me something different–but what we’ve seen is that Georgia is investing in that part of the country. There’s a lot of need in Georgia just as there is in Armenia and I think in that regard those two are fairly comparable.
On the schools, we did meet with some schools, I should say one Armenian and one Georgian school and the teachers raised the issue as well. The minority schools, or ethnic schools– whether they are Armenian, Russian, Azerbaijani–all of the teaching at those schools is in that language, except for if they are studying a foreign language. You are right, what is being reduced is teaching Armenian grammar and so forth. That is something the US embassy in Georgia has raised with the government in Tbilisi. One of the programs that we have in Georgia is to help the educational system in terms of how it makes its decisions and to try to help them make decisions based on facts as opposed to ‘well we think this might be a good thing to do.’ It’s sort of strategic planning and so forth and we hope that it will help with all the schools in Georgia.
A.Y.: Georgia’s Foreign Ministry recently traveled to Armenia where he denied the existence of the Armenian region of Javakhk. So does the US government recognize that the region of Javakhk exists?
M.Y.: It does. Obviously Georgians call that region Samtskhe-Javakhetti.
A.Y.: This will be my final question. For more than a year, the Armenian community has raised the issue of the 9th Circuit Court finding declaring California’s Armenian Genocide Life Insurance Recovery law as unconstitutional. How should we interpret the lack of response/silence by the administration on this front? Should we take that a sign that the administration has no intention of challenging the courts finding or that the administration agrees with the court’s ruling?
M.Y.: Can you remind me where this stands right now? Is this in litigation right now? If I could can I just take that question because I don’t have a substantive answer.