Thursday, September 25, 2008

Armenian Foreign Minister visits Washington

This was first published in July 19, 2008 Armenian Reporter.

Armenia’s foreign minister visits U.S. to enhance ties
Edward Nalbandian meets Rice, others
Signs anti-nuclearsmuggling deal
by Emil Sanamyan

– Armenia’s foreign minister held a series of meetings with senior United States officials here this week in a bid to reinforce a key partnership that has come under strain in recent months with a critical U.S. reaction to the Armenian government’s handling of the crisis that followed Armenia’s presidential elections in February.

Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, who was making his first visit to the United States since his appointment in April, told the Armenian Reporter on July 16 that “the main message I brought with me to Washington is our strong will to deepen and enhance our relations and cooperation in all possible fields with the United States.”

Mr. Nalbandian said that in meetings with U.S. officials he had outlined the steps taken by the Armenian authorities “to address all the problems [and] difficulties raised after the elections,” and “the progress made in that direction.” He said he stressed Armenia’s determination to proceed along the democratic path, as that is the “choice of the [Armenian] people.”

High-level meetings

Between July 14 and 17, Mr. Nalbandian met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey (recently nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey). According to the governments of Armenia and the United States, the issues discussed included Armenia’s political and economic reforms, the Karabakh peace process, and relations with Turkey.

Shortly before Mr. Nalbandian’s visit, in a comment to a Turkish media outlet, a U.S. State Department official welcomed President Serge Sargsian’s offer to invite his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül to Yerevan to watch an Armenia- Turkey soccer match scheduled for September 6, encouraging the Turkish leader to accept it.

But Foreign Minister Ali Babacan of Turkey reportedly said this week that Mr. Gul’s response will depend on “developments between the two countries ahead of the [Armenia-Turkey football] match.” (See story on p. 17.)

On July 15, Mr. Nalbandian also met with Ambassador John Danilovich, chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), to discuss the implementation of MCC’s five-year $235 million aid program in Armenia.

Citing the post-election crisis earlier this year, MCC had warned Armenia of possible suspension of the program unless “democratic momentum” is restored. It placed an informal “hold” on one of the projects – rural roads rehabilitation – last May, with other projects continuing at a normal pace.

On July 14, the Armenian government made public a decision it had made to finance the rural road project from the state budget, citing the need to begin construction work well before the onset of fall weather. A source closely familiar with the issue told the Armenian Reporter, “in an effort to keep the road construction on schedule, the MCC is prepared to accept [this] offer” by Armenia.

The MCC program has also been strained by continued devaluation of the U.S. dollar, diminishing the scope of work under the program.

As part of the visit, Mr. Nalbandian also addressed policy experts at a luncheon hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. (That presentation and discussion were off the record.)

He also met with Armenia’s congressional friends, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Howard Berman (D.-Calif.), and representatives of Armenian- American advocacy organizations.

New anti-smuggling agreement

Ms. Rice and Mr. Nalbandian also signed a formal agreement pledging to step up efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

According to a State Department fact sheet, the “Joint Action Plan between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Armenia on Combating Smuggling of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials” signed on July 14 seeks to increase Armenia’s capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond effectively to attempts to smuggle nuclear or radioactive materials that “could be acquired by terrorists or others who would use them to harm” the United States or its allies. The agreement builds on past nonproliferation cooperation between the United States and Armenia.

Armenia formally joined the Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative more than a year ago. The initiative was first launched by President George W. Bush and Russia’s then-president Vladimir Putin in June 2006; it has since been joined by 71 states worldwide (as of May 18, 2008), including most post-Soviet states and all neighbors of Iran – with the odd exception of Azerbaijan.

Armenian became the fifth country to sign a formal agreement with the United States. It was preceded by Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine; agreements with twenty more countries are anticipated.

—Yelena Osipova contributed reporting for this story.

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