This was first published in April 25, 2009 Armenian Reporter.
Edward Djerejian: Armenia’s future depends on good relations with neighbors
Retired Ambassador discusses his life, his book, and recent Armenia developments
A leading expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Edward Djerejian served in the State Department from 1962 to 1994, receiving numerous awards and distinctions. His postings included ambassador to Syria (1989–91) and Israel (1994), and he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (1991–93).
After his retirement from the Foreign Service, Amb. Djerejian became the founding director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. He has remained active in international affairs. In 1999 he spearheaded a mediating mission to Armenia and Azerbaijan that helped launch talks between the presidents of the two countries.
In 2003, at the request of the secretary of state, he chaired an Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World and in 2006 he was a senior policy advisor to a bipartisan Iraq Study Group. His book Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador’s Journey through the Middle East was released last September. He spoke with Washington editor Emil Sanamyan on April 17.
A child of refugees and a U.S. ambassador
Armenian Reporter: Looking back at your career, what would you say has been the recipe for your success as an American diplomat?
Edward Djerejian: A great deal of perseverance and hard work, being motivated by serving our country. I think public service is a very worthy endeavor in life. I always felt it was a privilege to represent the United States of America both abroad and in Washington with various foreign governments.
And I also think it is a tribute to our country that the American dream of accepting immigrants from all over the world and assimilating them to our society and giving them equal opportunities to achieve what they wish to achieve is a rather unique model.
In my book, I recounted [telling] my own family story to then President Hafez al Asad when I just began my posting as ambassador to Syria.
“After a brief exchange of pleasantries over Arabic coffee and sweets, Asad noted my Armenian name and asked me about my family origins. I recounted how, as youngsters, my father and mother had escaped the Turkish massacres during the 1915–18 period, when the Young Turk government was pursuing its genocidal policy against Armenians, and how they fled to Syria, where they were given refuge.
“My mother’s father, a police official in the Armenian town of Kharpout, was executed, and her mother succeeded in bringing her and her sisters to Aleppo, in northern Syria, for a short period, then took them to the coastal town of Jbeil (Byblos) in Lebanon, where there was a Danish orphanage for Armenian young girls.
“In his upper teens, my father escaped the ‘Death March’ that forced Armenians to travel on foot from their homes in eastern Turkey to the Syrian Desert town of Deir az-Zor, an ordeal during which hundreds of thousands died” (Danger and Opportunity, pp. 84–85).
Mr. Djerejian’s parents eventually made their way to the United States where they started a family. Edward Djerejian was born in New York City in 1939. And 70 years after his parents came to Syria as refugees, he was nominated to be U.S. ambassador in the same country.
ED: I think this [family story] is symbolic of much of what America is about.
Denied assignments in Ankara and Moscow
AR: While there are equal opportunities in U.S. public service for individuals of various backgrounds, outside the United States ethnic and other biases are still a norm. Did your background ever deny you an opportunity abroad as an ambassador to a particular country or an envoy on a specific issue?
ED: It is true that as a member of a minority group I had to work a little harder in order to compete and if you will make the grade and come up the career ladder. But that is probably true of all ethnic Americans that have to break new ground – you just have to work harder at the beginning to establish yourself.
When I came into the Service in early 1960s, I don’t think there were any ethnic Armenians in the Foreign Service. But I didn’t feel any discrimination per se.
The only assignment denied to me was being assigned to [the U.S. Embassy in] Turkey, because I was an Armenian and the State Department thought that could cause problems with the Turkish government.
Once, I got a call and was asked if I had any objections to being added to a list of potential nominees for ambassador to Turkey. I said absolutely not, but also that I didn’t think it was going to happen.
Also, I was on the list to be ambassador to Russia. And that became a case study of where my nomination did not go through because I was Armenian.
President George Bush-41 and Secretary of State Jim Baker nominated me to be the ambassador to Soviet Union. It was 1991 and that was the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Word came back from the last foreign minister of the USSR, Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, that although the Soviet government would be very pleased with Djerejian being nominated and that there was no ad hominem objection, there was a problem coming from [then still Soviet] Azerbaijan. The Azeris’ objection was that having an Armenian-American could be prejudicial for their interests and therefore the nomination was not forwarded.
And as a result, I was appointed assistant secretary in charge of Middle East policy, and we ended up going to Washington instead of Moscow.
AR: How did the February 1999 mission come about with you and
Ambassador Peter Rosenblatt going to Armenia and Azerbaijan?
ED: That was an initiative that I took as director of the Baker Institute, where we have a conflict resolution forum. And we have done track-II projects, including Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian tracks, which we continue to do.
At that point the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was quite on the agenda. And I thought we could provide a track-II dimension to the official talks that were on and off. I established a small team, and Amb. Rosenblatt was on the team and served very well. I even had my son Gregory Djerejian serve as a rapporteur for our talks and a couple of other people.
We had the assistance of Robert (Vache) Manoukian, a very wellknown businessman in London, and very involved in Armenian issues. He was going to Armenia at the time in any case and very graciously offered his plane for us to do shuttle diplomacy between Baku and Yerevan, which we did. It would have been near impossible to do the same on commercial planes flying between Baku, Moscow, and Yerevan.
In the end, we were able to narrow some of the issues and present them to the two governments as well as the U.S., the Europeans, and the Turks. I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of what we did, but I think it was useful.
We never went back because the OSCE Minsk Group work picked up since then. But I did a lot of work with the State Department advising both Secretary Madeleine Albright and Secretary Colin Powell on the situation in subsequent years.
There was a terrible missed opportunity in 2001. Secretary Powell called me at one point and said that we have a window where President [George W.] Bush and I can get involved to get the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations moving forward.
And that was about the time of the meeting [between Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents] in Key West, Florida.
So I called our contacts to urge them to be as positive as possible. What I stressed to them is that it is not often when an American president is ready to focus on Armenian-Azeri relations and Nagorno-Karabakh.
That it was a priceless opportunity to take advantage of. Unfortunately, that opportunity was squandered.
AR: Did President Heydar Aliyev have an issue with you as an Armenian-American mediating?
ED: I don’t think so. I think they were a bit surprised over the initiative I took. And one of the Azeri officials said in Baku that we are very impressed with the fact that not only that you came to Baku and that you also brought your son. These gestures in diplomacy can sometimes be very important.
Talks with Turkey “really hold promise”
AR: What is your sense of negotiations underway today?
ED: As you know the high-level talks between presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue. And there these extremely important talks between the governments of Armenia and Turkey, which really hold promise right now. And it is something that I absolutely encourage.
I have been promoting Armenian- Turkish reconciliation for years and working behind the scenes with both sides to encourage this.
And over the last year I have seen some real progress. I met with [Armenian] Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian in London – that was months ago – and that was the first indication that I got that something serious was afoot.
We had some track-II talks with the Turks and Armenians on reconciliation issues. But now it is really upfront at the highest levels of both governments. And that is really the way to go to deal with the border opening and the genocide issue in a context of enhanced relations between Turkey and Armenia.
AR: How would you assess the skill level of Armenian diplomacy over the past decade and a half? Are there any ups and downs that you could identify?
ED: I have seen the Armenian Foreign Ministry evolve over the years. It needed serious training of its diplomats. It needed serious reorganization and obviously needed to have the full support of whoever was the president of Armenia.
Over the last few years I have seen the improvement in capability of the Armenian Foreign Service. And we had the activism of foreign ministers. We have had two [activist] foreign ministers, Vartan Oskanian and now Nalbandian.
I have to say that there is now professionalism that I had not seen before and the ability to think outside the box and not just play to political constituencies, Armenian or foreign.
Armenia has begun to take a more defining role in foreign policy issues that are really critical to the future of Armenia. Be it with Azerbaijan,Turkey, Russia, the United States, France, or other powers, I think now the Armenians have begun to play their hand much more skillfully and effectively.
I have met both President Serge Sargsian and Minister Nalbandian and I think they understand that Armenia has a lot of assets. Even though it is a small state and relatively weaker in relation to some of its neighbors like Turkey or Russia, Armenia is a state that sits at crossroads.
Armenia is a Christian nation, and should Turkey normalize its relations with Armenia, that would really enhance its chances to enter the European Union.
If peaceful relations are established with Azerbaijan and Turkey, you could see some of the pipelines routed through Armenia as well.
Also, Armenia has a strong relationship with the United States because of the very vibrant and active Armenian-American community. Armenia has been supported by both Democratic and Republican administrations and is deserving of U.S. support.
Armenia does have a lot of problems. It needs to reform internally, build up its economy, get rid of corruption, and make the political experimentation with democracy more real.
But once the strategic alignment around Armenia is improved, particularly vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia can look forward to a bright future.
AR: Say the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments, for whatever reason, decline to establish relations with Armenia. What is the formula for survival in a state of continuing confrontation?
ED: That would be a very serious setback for Armenia and all countries of the region, including Turkey and Azerbaijan. But that would only be one failed effort. Everyone would have to re-assess the situation and see how they could pick up the pieces again.
I don’t see any way forward other than state to state relations between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan. If talks fail, we’ll just be wasting time and the populations we can never rule out prospects of another war with Azerbaijan.
But why waste more time, when parameters of a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Armenia and Turkey are pretty well defined.
AR: Over the years, many Armenian-Americans must have asked you about what to do to have our government take a clear stand on the Armenian Genocide and send an unambiguous message to Turkey. Why you think that campaign has been unable to achieve its stated goal over the last 30-plus years?
ED: The reasons are geopolitical in terms of U.S. interests in the broader Middle East region. Turkey is a major NATO ally. It is a secular state with majority Muslim population. There are many geopolitical assets that Turkey offers to the United States and therefore every administration, Democratic or Republican, has been hesitant to alienate the Turkish government on the genocide issue.
That has been a clear factor in the reluctance of American presidents and administrations to come out and call it genocide.
We Armenians can be frustrated over the fact that the word is not used specifically. But for years I have been saying that the only way this issue is going to be resolved is through state-to-state relations between Armenia and Turkey.
The issue is not just about the use of the word but about dealing with the genocide issue in a sustainable manner. That is why I am bolstered by the latest news from Armenia.
[Ed. Note: the conversation took place before the April 22 joint statement by Armenia, Switzerland, and Turkey.]