Pallone Says US Aid to Unlikely to Decrease

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The amount of US government assistance to Armenia is likely to remain unchanged at about $94 million in the next financial year–a leading pro-Armenian US congressman’said on Thursday.

Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ)–who is a co-chair of the 120-strong Congressional Caucus On Armenian Issues–said he thinks that US lawmakers will prevent a 20 percent reduction in the aid sought by the Bush administration.

"I think the prospects are good for a combined [Congressional] bill that would provide at least the same level of funding as last year," Pallone told a news conference in Yerevan. "We don’t worry about what the State Department wants to do."

The Senate appropriations committee has already approved its version of the annual US aid package to Armenia. It calls for $90 million and $3.7 million in economic and military assistance in 2003. The bill is expected to be passed by the Senate next month.

Pallone expressed hope that the House of Representatives will soon follow the suit. "We would like to have the bill in the House provideat least as much as what was available last year–including the same level of military assistance," he said.

Owing to the existence of the influential Armenian-American community–Armenia has been a leading per-capita recipient of American aid which has totaled more than $1.4 billion over the past decade.

The Senate bill obligates the US government to spend a remainder of a $20 million in direct US assistance to Nagorno Karabakh approved by Congress in 1998 despite strong Azerbaijani protests. According to Pallone–the legislation–if approved by Congress–will result in the release of $5 million in additional funds to the unrecognized Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

Pallone–who has played a major role in the passage of pro-Armenian initiatives–arrived in the Armenian capital from Nagorno Karabakh where he monitored the weekend the presidential elections denounced as illegitimate by the European Union and Russia. Pallone voiced his "disappointment" at European criticism of the vote–which he said was free and fair and underscored Karabakh’s de facto independence.

Pallone–wearing a pin with US and Armenian flags in his suit lapel–added that many US lawmakers disagree with the White House’s unwavering support of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. "There are many of us in Congress–including myself–who feel that–practically speaking–Nagorno Karabakh is a state–and that we would like to see Nagorno Karabakh either being an independent state that’s recognized by the United States or be part of Armenia," he said.

Pallone further welcomed the latest Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks–saying that the bipartisan Armenian Caucus will continue to encourage a peace agreement on Karabakh. "One of the things that we try to do is to put legislation in effect that expresses US support and even US funds for any kind of efforts that lead to peace," he said.

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