Friday, July 18, 2008

Five former U.S. Ambassadors to Armenia on relations

First published in October 20, 2007 Armenian Reporter

U.S. ambassadors chronicle Armenia’s progress
From humanitarian crisis to normalcy and economic growth
by Emil Sanamyan

WASHINGTON – The five ambassadors who represented the United States in Armenia between 1993 and 2006 discussed the challenges and achievements of their terms in a unique event hosted by the Library of Congress on September 28.

The Library’s Armenian specialist and the organizer of the event, Levon Avdoyan, said the idea for the event was born as he studied the personal papers of Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1913–16, and sought to contribute to the primary-source record of the first fifteen years of relations between Armenia and the United States.

The ambassadors’ presentations, delivered in chronological order, painted a picture of Armenia making progress, with U.S. help, from the humanitarian and political crises of the 1990s to the normalcy and economic success of recent years. Each ambassador also noted the role of Armenian-American organizations and individuals in
encouraging U.S. support for Armenia.

Turkey rejects Armenia’s overtures

Ambassador Harry Gilmore (served 1993–95) recalled the hardships Armenia experienced during the years of his tenure due to the breakup of the Soviet Union and accentuated by blockades imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey. By the time Mr. Gilmore arrived in Armenia, the United States already had a chargé d’affaires in Armenia, Thomas Price, who briefed the ambassador on the country’s problems, “which were many and huge.”

Mr. Gilmore noted the desire of President Levon Ter-Petrossian to reach out to Turkey and normalize relations, highlighted by his presence at President Turgut
Ozal’s funeral in April 1993 – just as Turkey closed its border with Armenia.

These efforts remained unappreciated by the Turkish government, which continued to side with Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue. And although a cease-fire agreement
put an end to the Karabakh war in May 1994, a full settlement remains elusive.

U.S. policy on Karabakh, Mr. Gilmore noted, was outlined as part of Senate testimony on September 7, 1992, by the ambassador-at-large for the Newly Independent States,
Strobe Talbott, and remains in effect to this day. It states that while the United States recognizes the territorial integrity of former Soviet republics, it does not rule out a change of borders so long as “mutual consent” is reached.

Mr. Gilmore described the U.S. humanitarian aid – primarily wheat and kerosene – delivered in the crisis years of the early to mid- 1990s as a “tonic” for Armenians that helped “engender confidence in the United States as a long-term and reliable friend and partner.” By 1995 the United States supplied half of Armenia’s food supply.

Tanks on the streets

The term of Ambassador Peter Tomsen (1995–98) was marked by a steady shift from humanitarian to developmental U.S. aid, but was also marked by the first major setbacks in relations. Mr. Tomsen particularly focused on the September
1996 presidential elections in which the incumbent president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was challenged by former prime minister Vazgen Manukian.

As the vote count was underway, “President Ter-Petrossian recognized he was losing the election toward the late evening, [but then he] suddenly appeared on television with a glass of champagne in his hand and announced that he just scored a brilliant victory,” Mr. Tomsen recalled. “There was tremendous fraud and the international condemnation was quite strong.”

Mr. Tomsen went on: “That same night riots broke out. Forty thousand people marched by our embassy and then attacked the parliament. I got a call from Jirair Libaridian [one of Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s senior aides] who asked me to go on Voice of America and call off the crowd. I of course did not have the ability to do that and urged him that excessive force not be used, but the tanks were moving in [already.]”

In subsequent meetings with Mr. Ter-Petrossian and Mr. Manukian, Mr. Tomsen helped broker a deal under which opposition leaders would get time on state-controlled television in exchange for calling off additional protests.

In the end, while Mr. Ter-Petrossian retained the presidency for another year and a half, President Bill Clinton refused to congratulate him on his re-election.
Mr. Tomsen noted that about a third of his time was consumed by efforts to address the Karabakh conflict, the resolution of which appeared caught between two tenets
of international law: territorial integrity of states and self-determination
of nations.

“It is a fact that for thousands of years the great majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has been Armenian,” Mr. Tomsen said. “Any trip through Nagorno- Karabakh will reveal [that]. So that cannot be ignored.”

A productive relationship

When Ambassador Michael Lemmon (1998–2001) prepared to take over the U.S. Embassy, everyone he talked to in the U.S. government was unhappy with the state of affairs
in Armenia, be it the state of democracy or the Karabakh peace process.

“It was not a very promising time,” Mr. Lemmon recalled. “I shared these impressions with President [Robert Kocharian] and that began a very frank, honest, productive, and respectful relationship that ensued for the next three years.”

The October 27, 1999, murders of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian
and parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian and the resulting political crisis “gave a body blow to the Armenian polity,” Mr. Lemmon said. “However, who could have imagined that Armenia could take this body blow, stagger, and yet hold steady and stay more or less on the democratic path?”

By the time Mr. Lemmon completed his term, Armenia’s policy of “complementarity” opened the way for greater cooperation with Euro-Atlantic organizations and closer ties with the United States in addition to those with Russia.

There was also a near breakthrough in talks with Azerbaijan. [According to reports since then, the agreement would have formalized Karabakh’s unification with Armenia. But following the Key West summit in April 2001, Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev walked away from the proposal.]

The United States also worked to try to improve Armenia’s relations with Turkey, on both official and unofficial levels. “And the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation
Commission [TARC] was one such effort that ensued [amid] considerable controversy, especially within the diaspora, over its composition and purpose,” Mr. Lemmon noted.

“Other parallel efforts in business and cultural spheres were simultaneously underway.”

Discussing Turkish nationalism, as manifested in the murder of Hrant Dink earlier this year, and continued tensions over the past and present relations with Armenia, Mr. Lemmon stressed that “dealing with those [nationalist] tendencies that exist in all societies – it is not a uniquely Turkish problem, it is a human problem, that all countries and societies have – but until it is addressed, until it is taken off [the agenda], democratic evolution of Turkey, and Armenia as well, attainment
of that European vocation, will not be successful.”

A long-term commitment

Ambassador John Ordway’s time in Armenia (2001–2004) “was characterized by a more normal situation in Armenia.” Mr. Ordway described his effort to reach out to the Armenian-American community and also showcase the positive impact that U.S. programs have had in Armenia.

While promotion of relations with both Azerbaijan and Turkey “were in a bit of a lull,” U.S. officials worked successfully in preventing any deterioration from the status quo. The United States also continued to provide development assistance
and make efforts to promote democracy.

The conduct of 2003 presidential election, in which President Kocharian was re-elected, showed progress; but these elections too did not fully meet European standards.

At the same time, the September 11 attacks shifted the emphasis to the war on terror and “there was a lot of forward movement on U.S.-Armenia military relationship.”

The construction of a new, much larger embassy building, which got underway during Mr. Ordway’s term, also came to symbolize the United States’ long-term commitment to Armenia.

Reaping the harvest

Ambassador John Evans (2004–2006) likened diplomacy to gardening, and said that his time marked “reaping of the harvest” for which his predecessors had sowed the seeds. On the subject of relations with Turkey, Mr. Evans noted that under the Kars Treaty, which established the present border, Turkey is under a legal obligation to keep it open.

But the continued closure of the border began to matter much less economically.
Some in Armenia may even prefer for the border to stay closed to protect local business interests.

Still, the Armenian government’s believes that opening it would bring an overall benefit. And in spite of the border closure, Turkish businesses have already found their way into Armenia. “In the construction of our new embassy in Yerevan,” Mr. Evans said, “there were 60 Turkish workers along with 600 locally employed Armenians, and basically they worked quite harmoniously.”

At the same time, Turkey’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia continues to hamper communication between the two governments, which in turn does not contribute to prospects of normalization.

Mr. Evans noted that his term came following “color revolutions” and government changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, which led to widespread speculation that the same might happen in Armenia, where opposition leaders continued to challenge the outcome of the 2003 election, and that the United States would support
such a development.

“Some members of the opposition were actually calling for a revolution in the streets,” Mr. Evans recalled. “One opposition politician in particular was constantly talking about when the revolution was going to happen, and sort of looked at his calendar and said, ‘Maybe three weeks from now.’”

Mr. Evans worked to dispel the idea that the United States supported such efforts, and he promoted the idea of democratic evolution over revolution.

At the end of 2005, the U.S. Embassy rolled out a new long-term democratic assistance
program, which received a favorable reaction from President Kocharian.

“The [parliamentary] elections held in May seemed to be much better [than previous polls] by all accounts and signs are positive for presidential elections this winter,” Mr. Evans said. “It does seem that these seeds planted years back have
started to bear fruit.”

During Mr. Evans’ term foundations were laid for the U.S. Millennium Challenge assistance program that would focus on “Armenia’s rural areas, which [by 2004] seemed to be very sadly lagging behind Yerevan, which of course was booming.”

Mr. Evans concluded that sustained U.S. support for Armenia, in various fields over fifteen years, “helped create maybe not a Garden of Eden yet, but a very fine garden” that is modern Armenia.

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