Monday, September 1, 2008

Briefly: Menendez on Yovanovitch, Congressional hearing on Armenia politics and Azeri war threats; Georgia vs. Russia in Abkhazia

First published in April 26, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Washington Briefing
by Emil Sanamyan

Senator Menendez pledges tough scrutiny of new nominee for ambassador to Armenia

Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), who in 2006 and again in 2007 blocked the nomination of Richard Hoagland to be U.S. ambassador to Armenia over his and the administration’s failure to appropriately address the Armenian Genocide, promised on April 23 to give the same kind of scrutiny to President Bush’s new nominee for the position, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

During the annual congressional commemoration of the Genocide, Sen. Menendez said that he will “ask the same questions of the new nominee [as he asked Ambassador Hoagland] and would not hesitate to place a hold” on her candidacy.

Ms. Yovanovitch was formally nominated by President Bush on March 28 and her candidacy is expected to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Sen. Menendez is a member, soon.

U.S. Helsinki Commission chair calls on Armenians to sort out own affairs

“All of you all need to get grown up and make Armenia whole,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D.-Fla.) told Armenian government and opposition representatives on April 17 after hearing their testimonies on the post-election crisis in Armenia.

“[The situation] doesn’t need American intervention or European intervention,” he said. “What it needs is Armenian citizens to come to terms with their own reality and to move your nation forward.”

Rep. Hastings chairs the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, also known as the Helsinki commission), which held the hearing on “Armenia after the elections.” Armenian President Serge Sargsian’s aide Vigen Sargsyan (see interview with Mr. Sargsyan on page 20 of this issue) and former aide to ex-President Levon Ter-Petrossian Arman Grigorian offered testimonies on behalf of the government and Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s campaign.

While Rep. Hastings referred to Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s undemocratic conduct while president and questioned his “moral authority” today, he also agreed that at least some of the arrests of opposition activists since the election were political in nature.

Commission co-chair Sen. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.) called results of February 19 elections “troublesome,” questioned the Armenian government’s argument that the opposition was seeking to stage a coup, and warned that “restrictions of basic rights cannot be tolerated.” He also called for the United States to play a leading role in an “independent” investigation of the March 1 violence.

Another commission member and longtime supporter of Armenian-American issues, Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.), called on the U.S. government to “energetically press the president of Armenia to restore full freedom of assembly and full freedom to publish and to broadcast.”

He added that “whenever the Armenian government has raised its standards in respect of human rights and democracy, it has empowered its friends abroad to support it more effectively.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza, who testified on behalf of the U.S. government, placed the blame for the deadly March 1 clashes primarily with the Armenian government.

“We probably will never know who started [the violence], how it began, how a peaceful protest devolved into this level of violence,” Mr. Bryza said. “We do know, though, that generally in the international community, we hold governments responsible for the use of violence against civilians and for the use of violence under such political circumstances.”

The State Department official acknowledged “some progress” since the lifting of the state of emergency, but called for “dramatic steps” by the Sargsian administration to return “democratic momentum” in Armenia, suggesting that the country’s eligibility for democratic performance-based Millennium Challenge Assistance may otherwise suffer.

Member of Congress calls for tougher U.S. message to Azerbaijan on war threats

As part of the Helsinki Commission hearing on April 17, Rep. Chris Smith raised concerns over the lack of a coherent State Department response to Azerbaijan’s military build-up and threats to launch a new war over Karabakh. Mr. Smith asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza whether the United States has made it clear “what penalty would Azerbaijan suffer if it initiated hostilities?”

Mr. Bryza, who has been the U.S. envoy for Karabakh peace talks since June 2006, said that Pres. Aliyev’s threats were for domestic consumption and were also a form of brinkmanship in the negotiations process, and that “there’s no military solution, we believe, for the Karabakh problem.”

“I myself have a couple of times, in my capacity as [a negotiator], raised this issue with President Aliyev,” Mr. Bryza said. “In fact, twice I was able to do that.” He also reiterated the previously articulated State Department position that “any resumption of armed hostility in and around Nagorno-Karabakh would be tragic, tragic for everybody, absolute disaster.… It would just be another cycle of conflict, loss, retaliation. So that will never end.”

But “in terms of penalty, I wouldn’t want to speculate on that because all the various scenarios are so unpredictable,” Mr. Bryza added. “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.”

Mr. Smith recalled the “feckless” U.S. and European response on the eve of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and added that “a predictable penalty at least needs to be on the drawing board, if hostilities are instigated by Azerbaijan.”

Georgian spy plane shot down over Abkhazia reignites tensions

What appears to have been a Russian combat aircraft shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane over the breakaway Abkhazia province on April 20, leading to a new escalation in tensions.

Just last month, Russia began to lift its more than a yearlong transportation embargo on Georgia, after the two countries clashed repeatedly over Georgia’s efforts to re-integrate Abkhazia, and another breakaway entity, South Ossetia, while also seeking to join the U.S.-led NATO.

But following the weekend incident, President Mikhail Saakashvili again accused Russia of “aggression” and “creeping annexation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two republics that have been de-facto independent of Georgia since the early 1990s.

Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze was in Washington and New York this week to mobilize U.S. and international support.

Speaking at Johns Hopkins University on April 22, Mr. Bakradze expressed hope that Russia’s moves would be checked through a combination of “Georgia’s good will” and
international criticism.

Mr. Bakradze’s co-panelist Acting Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza endorsed the Georgian view of the April 20 incident, describing it as a deplorable action, defending Georgia’s right to observe its own territory and calling for an urgent international action to improve Abkhazia security.

The United Nations Security Council will convene a special meeting on April 23 to discuss the incident.

Russia has taken a tougher line on Georgia, as the country moved closer to NATO membership. Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin last week formally ended Russian sanctions against Abkhazia and South Ossetia and pledged to provide them with economic aid.

In recent years, as Georgian military began to build up with Western help, there has been an increase in a frequency of clashes in the two territories.

Abkhaz officials have previously claimed that Georgia’s spy planes began flying over the Black Sea republic last summer. Last month, Abkhazia exhibited debris of what its officials said was a brought down Georgian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), but at the time Georgia denied the report.

Georgia also initially denied the incident on Sunday, but then on Monday went public with footage made from the spy plane in real time seconds before it was shot down by a missile from an aircraft that appeared from the video to be a Russian MiG-29.

Russian government denied its plane was involved and called Georgian spy flights a violation of the UN-mandated peace regime in Abkhazia.

Pres. Saakashvili revealed to the New York Times on April 22 that Georgia had acquired about 40 Israeli-made UAVs. The Hermes-450 UAV costs about $2 million apiece and is made by Israel’s Elbit Systems, which had previously worked to upgrade Georgia’s Su-25 combat aircraft.

—Haik Gugarats contributed to this week’s Briefing.

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