First published in June 21, 2008 Armenian Reporter
State Department, Congressional panel discuss U.S. policy in Armenia and its neighborhood
Armenian Genocide, Turkish blockade, Karabakh are focus of hearing
by Emil Sanamyan
WASHINGTON – The members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives and the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Dan Fried on June 18 held a rare public discussion of U.S. policies in the Caucasus region.
The hearing, titled “Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts and Closed Borders,” was an opportunity for lawmakers to express their discontent with the Bush administration’s policy on the Armenian Genocide, lack of action on the Turkish blockade of Armenia, and threats by Azerbaijan to go to war over Karabakh.
The administration in turn used the opportunity to reiterate its concerns about Russia, Iran, and recent domestic developments in Armenia and, to a lesser extent, Azerbaijan.
The hearing was called by the committee chair Howard Berman (D.-Calif.), a member of the Armenian Caucus, just weeks after Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.) introduced a legislative measure titled “End the Turkish Blockade of Armenia Act” that, if passed, would require the Secretary of State to report on steps taken by the United States to end Turkey’s blockade of Armenia.
The legislation, introduced on May 15, came as efforts to secure House adoption of the Armenian Genocide resolution, passed in the Foreign Affairs Committee last October, appear to have stalled in the face of unprecedented opposition from the Bush administration.
On the Armenian Genocide
Rep. Schiff, as well as Reps. Jim Costa (D.-Calif.), Ed Royce (R.-Calif.), Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.) and Diane Watson (D.-Calif.), also used the opportunity to grill Assistant Secretary Dan Fried on the administration’s opposition to Genocide affirmation. There were heated exchanges.
Like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year, Mr. Fried avoided giving a yes-or-no answer when pressed on whether he thought the Armenian experience in the Ottoman Empire should be described as genocide. Instead he argued that congressional recognition “would not contribute” to the cause of improved relations between Armenia and Turkey.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) was the lone committee member to express support for this position of the administration, saying that it was not up to Congress to “bestow” terms on the “awful thing” that happened to Armenians.
Secretary Fried did acknowledge that the record on “mass killings” and “forced exile” of Armenians was “very clear” and that the administration “never denied these events” and that the president continues to mark them annually in a statement.
He went on to say: “I’ve made it clear to everyone in the European Bureau that they are welcome to present any alternative views on this or any other issue in-house, and I’ve made clear that such views will be heard and respected.”
On Turkey’s blockade
Mr. Berman began the hearing by noting that Turkey’s closure of its land border was “quite possibly illegal,” citing Ankara’s obligations under the Treaty of Kars and regulations of the World Trade Organization, of which both Turkey and Armenia are members.
“It’s baffling why Ankara would want to pursue this land blockade, which also harms the economy of eastern Turkey [and] seems manifestly contrary to the strategic interests of Turkey, which purports to be a solid member of the Western alliance,” Mr. Berman argued.
“The land blockade has done absolutely nothing to persuade Armenia to alter its policies on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue – the ostensible cause of the land blockade in the first place. Nor is there any prospect that it will do so,” Mr. Berman continued.
“Armenia has demonstrated its resolve to support the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is more likely to win influence with the Armenian government if it pursues a policy of good-neighborliness than if it slams the border closed,” he said.
In response, Mr. Fried pointed to direct air links between Armenia and Turkey and trade conducted through Georgia, also frequently cited by officials from Ankara as evidence that Turkey was not quite blockading Armenia. He said that the United States would certainly welcome an opening of the land border as well and that such an opening should not be linked to the Karabakh peace process.
But when pressed by Reps. Costa, Royce, and Schiff, Mr. Fried did not reveal any steps to achieve the border opening beyond raising the issue.
Meantime, Turkish Caucus co-chair Rep. Robert Wexler (D.- Fla.) said that he remained “hopeful” that Armenia and Turkey will find ways to improve relations, pointing to the recent exchange of messages between the two governments.
Mr. Fried said he agreed that the exchange was “promising” and even suggesting that such an improvement could come “quickly.” But in his testimony he acknowledged that reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey will require steps that “will not be easy.”
“Turkey needs to come to terms with a dark chapter in its history: the mass killings and forced exile of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire,” he said. “For its part, Armenia must be ready to acknowledge the existing border and disavow any claim on the territory of modern Turkey, and respond constructively to any efforts Turkey may make.”
Mr. Berman, Mr. Royce, Mr. Sherman, as well as the Armenian Caucus co-chairs Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R.-Mich.) and Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.), who although not committee members took part in the hearing, also expressed concerns over Azerbaijan’s posturing in the Karabakh conflict.
Mr. Berman suggested that as in the Middle East, U.S. policy should not be solely focused on achieving a peace agreement but that the United States should also reduce tensions by promoting mutually beneficial projects between parties to the conflict.
Mr. Knollenberg and Mr. Royce referred to increases in Azerbaijan’s military spending and quoted statements of its president, Ilham Aliyev, about his readiness to go to war; they wondered what United States was doing about that.
Mr. Fried, while describing Azerbaijan’s “bellicose” rhetoric as “unhelpful,” disagreed that it intended to go to war, pointing to the recent meeting between Mr. Aliyev and President Serge Sargsian of Armenia.
“We’ve also explained to them, frankly, that Azerbaijan’s wealth comes from the export of gas and oil, and that a war puts that at risk very quickly,” Mr. Fried said. He added, “it is also the judgment of the United States that Azerbaijan does not have a military superiority over Armenia and that a war would be costly to both sides and unwinnable by either one.”
Also expressing “concern about Azerbaijan attacking Armenia because of a territorial dispute” was longtime Turkey and Azerbaijan supporter Rep. Dan Burton (R.- Ind.). Pointing to a need for energy independence, he also stressed the importance of minimizing prospect for conflicts in energy-rich areas, such as the Caucasus.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R.-Penn.), co-chair of the recently established Azerbaijan caucus, who was also invited to the committee hearing, noted Azerbaijan’s cooperation with the United States on energy and security issues and wondered whether Congress should accede to the “Muslim ally’s” requests and fully repeal restrictions on U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan, known as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act.
Secretary Fried responded that existing conditional waiver authority, approved by Congress in 2001, provides sufficient opportunities for the United States to conduct relations with Azerbaijan.
Mr. Pallone and Mr. Sherman argued that the United States should move to expand relations with the Nagorno-Karabakh republic and recognize its people’s right to selfdetermination.
“We supported the independence of Kosovo, and we ought to take some of the same attitudes and apply them to the NK conflict,” said Mr. Sherman, while Rep. Pallone suggested “de facto” recognition of Karabakh’s independence and lifting of existing restrictions on U.S. engagement with Karabakh.
Secretary Fried referred during the hearing to the continued tensions between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, suggesting that “unremitting and dangerous pressure from Russia” on U.S.-supported Georgia “risk[s] igniting a wider conflict.”
Mr. Fried also touched on U.S. efforts to undermine Russia’s dominance of Eurasian energy markets by facilitating energy development in Azerbaijan and Central Asia.
Concerns about Russia’s as well as Iran’s policies were also expressed by Reps. Gene Green (D.-Tex.), Ted Poe (R.-Tex.), David Scott (D.-Ga.), and others.
Mr. Berman, the committee chair, specifically asked Mr. Fried whether any of the Caucasus countries supplied Iran with uranium, saying a rumor to that effect was going around.
Mr. Fried said he was unaware of any such supplies, but would check further.
Finally, Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.) asked whether Islamic radicals from Al Qaida had infiltrated any part of the Caucasus. Secretary Fried responded that such efforts had been made in Russia’s North Caucasus and Azerbaijan, but not in Georgia or Armenia.
—Yelena Osipova contributed to this story.