Friday, September 5, 2008

Senate considers nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Armenia

First published in the June 21, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Senate panel considers nominee to head Embassy in Armenia
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch treads Armenian Genocide issue carefully
by Yelena Osipova and Emil Sanamyan

– The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 19 considered the nomination of Marie Yovanovitch for the post of the U.S. ambassador to Armenia. The nomination is likely to be voted on by the committee later this summer. There was no immediate indication that the appointment would be blocked.

The Armenian government has made it clear that it wants the position, which has been vacant since September 2006, filled as soon as possible.

Ambassador Yovanovitch began her prepared remarks by addressing the subject of the Armenian Genocide: “The U.S. government – and certainly I – acknowledges and mourns the mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and forced deportations that devastated over one and a half million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire.”

The nominee went on to describe the events “as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, the “‘Medz Yeghern’ or Great Calamity,” the Armenian-language reference
to the Genocide previously employed by President George W. Bush in April 2005 in yet another effort to avoid the term genocide that the Turkish government opposes.

She also acknowledged, “the administration understands that many Americans and many Armenians believe that the events of the past that I have referred to should be called ‘genocide.’” She then repeated the Bush administration’s justifications for not doing so, citing efforts to reconcile Armenia and Turkey.

Just two committee members, Senators Ben Cardin (D.-Md.) and Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), were present as the testimony was delivered late on Thursday; other senators submitted statements for the record.

Pressed by Sen. Menendez, who repeatedly referred to U.S. documents from throughout the 20th century describing the Armenian Genocide, Amb.Yovanovitch said she could not deviate from administration’s policy and use the term.

Sen. Menendez described the administration’s position on the matter as “ridiculous,” while also expressing “great admiration” for the nominee and her “modest answers.”

Other committee members, including Senators Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) and Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) (see this week’s Washington Briefing on this page) issued written statements criticizing the administration’s policy on the Armenian Genocide.

In his statement, committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.) suggested that the absence of a U.S. ambassador from Armenia has been “detrimental to both U.S. and Armenian interests.”

The Armenian government has expressed the wish to see a new ambassador to Armenia approved as soon as possible. The new nomination comes at a difficult period in U.S.-Armenia relations stemming from U.S. criticism of the Armenian government’s handling of the February 2008 presidential election and its aftermath.

Ambassador Yovanovitch was introduced by former Senate majority leader and longtime Armenian-American ally Robert Dole, who substantiated the need for a U.S. Ambassador in Yerevan by citing “very serious problems” in a “politically weak” Armenia.

Sen. Cardin, also a supporter of Armenian-American issues, used the opportunity to question the credibility of the Armenian government’s description of the March 1 violence and asked whether the United States continued to press for an independent inquiry. (Sen. Cardin, who is co-chair of the bicameral Helsinki Commission, also criticized the government at that commission’s hearing on Armenia held in April.)

While calling the post-election situation “disturbing” in her written testimony, Ambassador Yovanovitch acknowledged the recent establishment of a parliamentary commission to examine the clashes between police and demonstrators.

In her testimony, she noted that the United States seeks “to help the Armenian government and the Armenian people restore democratic momentum” and that “it is up to the Armenian government to take the necessary steps, so that the [Millennium Challenge] Compact program could continue.” (See a story on the program on page 4.)

Citing Armenia’s economic progress and security cooperation with the United States and NATO, she described U.S.-Armenia relations as “broad and deep” and pledged to strengthen the bilateral “partnership” if approved as ambassador.

The post of the U.S. ambassador to Armenia has been vacant since September 10, 2006, when the State Department recalled Ambassador John Evans ahead of time because he used the term Genocide in public remarks in the United States in 2005.

The president nominated Ambassador Richard Hoagland to replace Mr. Evans. Mr. Hoagland’s responses to the Senate committee were construed as a denial of the veracity of the Armenian Genocide, and committee approval was uncertain. After Mr. Hoagland revised his answers in writing, the committee approved his candidacy.

However, it never came to a vote in the full Senate because Sen. Menendez used a Senate procedure under which he was able place a “hold” on the matter coming to a vote. The president renominated Mr. Hoagland in 2007, but Sen. Menendez continued to block a vote. The president finally withdrew the nomination.

In the meantime, the U.S. mission in Armenia has been led by chargĂ©s d’affaires. The first was Deputy Chief of Mission Anthony Godfrey; at the expiration of his term, retired Ambassador Rudolph Perina was sent to Armenia for some three months as chargĂ©. The post is now held by Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Pennington.

Ambassador Yovanovitch is a 22-year veteran of the Foreign Service who just concluded a three-year assignment as U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. Prior to that appointment, from August 2004 to May 2005, Ms. Yovanovitch was senior advisor to the then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman.

From August 2001 to June 2004, Ms. Yovanovitch was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. From May 1998 to May 2000, Ms. Yovanovitch was deputy director of the State Department’s Russia Desk; she had been posted with embassies in Canada, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Somalia.

Her educational background includes a B.A. in history and Russian studies from Princeton University in 1980 and a master’s from the National War College in 2001.

Born in Canada to parents of Serbian and Russian descent, she grew up in Connecticut and is fluent in Russian and French.

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