Lemmon Says Armenia Can Be ‘Economic Engine’ of Caucasus

YEREVAN (Noyan Tapan)–Armenia can become the "economic engine of the Caucasus" if it proceeds with economic and political reform and establishes closer ties with neighboring countries–Michael Lemmon–the US ambassador to Armenia–said on Thursday.

"I think that the economic reform process is probably more advanced in Armenia than elsewhere in the region. Armenia can build and play a critical role in the economic development of the wider region," Lemmon told reporters in Yerevan. "I believe there is incredible wealth of human talent in this country that is not being fully utilized," he said. In his words: "halting or reversing the reform process is therefore no solution" to the country’s economic woes.

Lemmon said Washington has been "working hard" to promote economic integration and the restoration of communication routes in the region–which has been impoverished by bitter ethnic disputes. In particular he stressed the importance of economic ties between Armenia and Georgia as a "first stage" of a wider regional cooperation.

"It is particularly important to see the continuing development of the Georgian-Armenian cooperative links," Lemmon said. He added that America has a "strong interest" in opening a commercial route linking Azerbaijan to Turkey via Armenia–which would bring "very–very real economic benefits."

Armenia has no diplomatic relations with either of those countries due to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

"I am cautiously optimistic at the spirit of regional cooperation and cooperation I have seen in recent months. There is a new atmosphere developing–a new sense of possibilities," he said.

The US ambassador also urged Yerevan to make sure the upcoming parliamentary elections are free and fair–something which he said "Armenia needs more than anything else."It is absolutely necessary for the [electoral] process to be free–fair–transparent and acceptable in its conduct to all the parties and voting public," he said.

Armenia is a leading recipient of US economic aid–mainly owing to the existence of a large and influential Armenian-American community. The amount of assistance this year is likely to remain at roughly $130 million.

Lemmon described as "very wise and balanced" the Armenian government’s declared intention to have simultaneously good relationships with the West–Russia and neighboring Iran–Washington’s arch-enemy.

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