Frank Pallone: U.S. recognition of NKR will be difficult
Veteran member of Congress discusses Armenian-American agenda
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Thursday August 20, 2009
Rep. Frank Pallone during a meeting with NKR officials at his office on Capitol Hill. NKR Office in the United States photo.
Washington - A member of Congress for more than 20 years, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, is a national leader on Armenian-American issues and a founding co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues; he also chairs the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health.
The interview that follows is based in large part on questions we solicited from the Armenian Reporter readers last week. Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan put them to Rep. Pallone on August 14.
Armenian Reporter: Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have recently set precedents of international recognition without the consent of countries that claimed sovereignty over them. Should friends of Armenians in the United States initiate Nagorno-Karabakh's recognition instead of deferring to talks with Azerbaijan? What work can be done in Congress to achieve this goal?
Rep. Frank Pallone: I believe personally that the United States should recognize Nagorno-Karabakh. I certainly would be willing to do whatever I can to have that happen.
But I will say that it will be difficult, because a lot of members of Congress are not that familiar [with the subject], I assume that the State Department would be against it, and I am not sure how much Armenia itself would be pushing for it. So it would probably be hard to do.
And while I support recognition of NKR, I do not know if the Armenian community wants to prioritize that. The community has to prioritize the issues and spend their time on things that are more likely [to be successfully accomplished]. And [since] this issue would be difficult, I would not recommend that they prioritize it.
AR: There has been quite a bit of criticism in Armenia of the outgoing U.S. envoy for Karabakh, Matt Bryza, as biased in favor of Azerbaijan and Turkey. What can Congress do to have a Karabakh envoy who would better reflect U.S. respect for Armenians' self-determination and democratic choice, and appreciation of security challenges Armenians are facing?
FP: Matt Bryza is only reflecting the policy of the State Department. The State Department takes a position that Nagorno-Karabakh doesn't have the status of a state. And they have traditionally highlighted territorial integrity over self-determination.
But they are wrong in this case because they do not realize that Nagorno-Karabakh has every right to be an independent nation. So, what you really need to do is to have the State Department change its position.
They have to realize that according to the Soviet legal framework, Nagorno-Karabakh had self-government and certain rights, including holding a referendum and becoming an independent country, which is what had happened.
So it's not simply an issue of territorial integrity versus self-determination. Nagorno-Karabakh is a successor state to the Soviet Union, and no different from Armenia or Russia in that respect.
AR: Armenia has been historically carved up by imperial powers and the current state occupies only a fraction of its historic homeland. Today, Armenians are urged to make substantial territorial concessions as part of a Karabakh settlement with no such concessions by the other side. How can Armenian-Americans get their pre-history and their interests to be better appreciated in the United States?
FP: Simply because Nagorno-Karabakh is a small area with a relatively small population, it is difficult for the State Department, and any administration to focus on it.
The argument that should be made is that this a powder keg. In other words if you do not work to solve this situation and come up with a compromise, there is a potential for another major war in the Caucasus that would have major implications for several neighboring countries, Turkey and Russia especially. And that this strategic concern must be appreciated.
The war between Russia and Georgia [in August 2008] is a recent example of the volatility in the Caucasus region.
Relations with Turkey
AR: Speaking of community priorities, how have you handled occasional disagreements between Armenian-American priorities and those of the Republic of Armenia? There were clearly divergent positions on the Armenia-Turkey "roadmap" announced on April 22.
FP: Most people in the community that I talk to are in favor of normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey. And of course I would like to see more normal relations between the two countries, including significant trade between them.
But Armenian-Americans also want genocide recognition and they felt that the Obama administration was trading the roadmap for genocide recognition. I believe that these two issues should be separated. The president should make a public statement recognizing the Armenian Genocide and Congress should pass its resolution. We should proceed with the roadmap as well; one should not be in lieu of the other.
The Armenian government was very supportive of the roadmap, but they did not want it to be an excuse not to recognize the Armenian Genocide. And after April 24, Turkish leaders began to step back from the "road map," and going back to their preconditions related to the Karabakh conflict.
These are all separate issues. Normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations should not be linked to the Karabakh conflict.
AR: Three or more administrations have been blocking congressional resolutions on Armenian Genocide. Have Armenian advocacy groups ever asked the administration for something in lieu of a congressional resolution that would both show respect for the genocide's victims and also benefit the Armenian-American agenda? In your mind, what could be such an alternative?
FP: I would note that the Obama administration is not opposed to the resolution, I have not heard that. And President [Barack Obama]'s position is that the Genocide occurred and should be recognized. But [because] all the emphasis was on the "road map" in April, the issue of the genocide was sort of put aside.
I do think that a presidential statement and a resolution by Congress are necessary to memorialize the Armenian Genocide. And while genocide recognition needs to remain a priority, the diaspora should spend time to prioritize other issues as well. These would include a settlement with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh as well as U.S. support of Armenia economically and militarily. We have the two Armenian republics and they need to be protected.
AR: Former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds recently repeated her allegations about the Turkish government's attempts to bribe and even blackmail U.S. officials into supporting their agenda. Do you support a congressional inquiry based on these troubling allegations?
FP: I am not familiar enough with her to express an opinion.
Armenia aid and trips
AR: On the subject of aid to Armenia, the Obama administration's first aid request differed markedly from promises candidate Obama made in his campaign. Was that a reflection of the administration's lack of interest in Armenia, inertia from the Bush administration, or both? Can you explain how the budget request process works?
FP: The request comes out of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but the figures basically reflect the recommendations of the State Department.
The Obama administration believed that their request was generous because it was above President Bush's request the previous year. They ignored the fact that Congress appropriated significantly more and that the Bush administration was not a friend.
So I told them that they cannot make their budget request based on the previous administration because Bush was not a friend of Armenia and they are. So, they have to be more generous and request more than Congress appropriated the previous year.
There is also this tendency to expect that Congress would always add aid to Armenia, and therefore the administration can request less. I have told them that that's the wrong approach for a friend.
Next year, we expect the administration to request at least as much as Congress put in the previous year or make a more robust request.
AR: In the last several years there have been markedly fewer visits by U.S. lawmakers to Armenia. What is the reason for that?
FP: That is totally a function of changes in the congressional ethics rules. I used to go to Armenia every year, and I haven't been back for a few years now because when the ethics rules were changed about four years ago, that precluded any trips being paid by advocacy groups or individuals associated with them.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) or the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), and other Armenian groups can no longer pay for the trips.
Government-funded congressional delegations are still available, but those are normally subject to committee jurisdiction. So if you are not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, you may not be included. And if they have a trip, they are more likely to go Iraq or Afghanistan or some of the major trouble spots.