US Ambassador Visits the Bay Area Armenian American Community

Berkeley–On his tour of Armenian-American communities throughout the United States–US Ambassador to Armenia John Evans spoke candidly about various issues of concern to Armenia’s–including the importance of Armenian genocide recognition.

"I will today call it the Armenian Genocide," said Evans–who has studied Russian History at Yale and Columbia universities and Ottoman History at the Kennan Institute.

During a public gathering on February 19–hosted by UC Berkeley’s Armenian Studies Program Executive Director Prof. Stephan Astourian–Ambassaador Evans told community members he had studied the Genocide–having read various sources including Prof. Richard Hovannissian’s work on the topic–the compilation of US newspaper accounts of the Genocide–a book about the Germany’s involvement in the Genocide–and the recent Pulitzer Prize winning book "A Problem from Hell," about the US response to 20th century genocides.

"I informed myself in depth about it," said Evans–"and I think we–the US government–owe you–our fellow citizens a more frank and honest way of discussing this problem. Today–as someone who’s studied it…There’s no doubt in my mind what happened." Evans said he had also consulted with a State Department lawyer who confirmed that the events of 1915 were "genocide by definition."

Various past and present US administrations and officials have avoided using the word "genocide" for the Armenian case–using various descriptive phrases and euphemisms–instead. Noting that "No American official has ever denied it," Evans nevertheless said–"I think it is unbecoming of us as Americans to play word games here. I believe in calling things by their name," pointed out–however–that the official policy of the US has not changed. "In the case of Turkey–there are old NATO ties–particularly in the military sphere."

Evans also emphasized that he believed that the International Convention on Genocide–an agreement approved by the United Nations in 1948 condemning and indicating punishment for the crime genocide–applies only to events occurring after 1948. "We do not dispute the facts–but these treaties are meant to apply to future events," said Evans.

"The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century," said Evans–remarking that since it was the first occurrence–the world was not equipped to respond appropriately. "We made many mistakes after WWI. They sowed the seeds of WWII." Commending Colin Powell for courageously calling the recent massacres in Darfur–Sudan genocide–Evans said–"I pledge to you–we are going to do a better job at addressing this issue."

Regarding the US relationship with Turkey–Evans said–"We’re having a very hard time with Turkey," and "What we all want to see is evolution in Turkish society. Let’s hope we’ll all see the day when there will be a change of heart in those areas where there needs to be."

The Ambassador’s commen’s about the Armenian genocide were greeted with sustained applause from the audience. "We welcome the Ambassador’s honest approach to Armenian history," said Roxanne Makasdjian of the Bay Area ANC. "Although we believe that there are many international laws and agreemen’s–including the Genocide Convention–which are clearly applicable to the Armenian Genocide–we are impressed and gratified by Ambassador Evans’ straight-forward discussion of the historical facts."

At the Berkeley event and at a lunch meeting at KZV Armenian School with representatives of various Bay Area Armenian-American organizations–Ambassador Evans also discussed the Karabagh conflict and US aid to Armenia–presenting a 14-minute DVD about the many initiatives being carried out by the United States Agency for International Development in Armenia.

In response to questions about US policy towards independence for Karabagh–Evans compared the prevailing government view in the 20th century against secessionist movemen’s to the 19th century societal taboo against divorce. He said that the US does not favor non-secessionist policy over secessionism. "It’s ultimately the presidents who will make the political move forward."

He said currently there might be a slight cause for optimism in the Karabagh settlement process because neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is nearing an election at a time "fraught with risk." Evans indicated that although the US follows a policy of territorial integrity of nations–"Everybody realizes that Karabagh can’t be given back to Azerbaijan. That would be a disastrous step."If Yerevan and Baku work out a settlement–I hope that everyone will pull together to support them. If they reach a settlement–we cannot undermine it."

Referring to a recent statement made by US Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones during a video conference on US-Russia relations–Ambassador Evans said there was no need for a retraction of the statement. Jones had said–"It is in Russia’s interest for these areas–for Transnistria–Abkhazia–South Ossetia–Nagorno-Karabakh–for these areas to be stable–for corruption to end there–for the criminal secessionists who rule there to be removed."

Ambassador Evans said Jones was not referring to Karabagh with the term "criminal secessionists," and therefore no public apology was necessary beyond the explanation she gave in private discussions with the Armenian government. The ambassador said–"Too much was made of the comment–that it had been exaggerated too much in Armenia–that Armenia’s may be doing damage to their national interest by perpetuating the issue. I think you should drop it and get on with life," said Evans.

Commenting on a recent statement by an Azeri official who said that there would be no Armenia left in 25 years–Evans said–"This was an outrageous–bellicose statement–and it brought back bad memories for Armenia’s." Assuring that US officials often work behind the scenes to address such problems–Evans said–"One of our main goals is to provide for greater stability in the region."

Evans praised Armenia’s democratic and economic progress–saying–"Armenia is headed in the right direction in several vectors. Sometimes progress is not as swift as we’d like–but the basic direction is right." Referring to the Millenium Challenge Account–a US government program which rewards more aid to governmen’s that are taking steps "to rule justly–invest in the people–and provide the right conditions for free markets and private enterprise," Evans said Armenia rated "above the mean." Among all the former Soviet States–only Armenia and Georgia were deemed eligible for funding–he said.

Although the problem of corruption is still significant–Evans said Armenia "regularly comes out ahead of its neighbors." He noted that this year Armenia will have recovered back to its economic level of 1991–and that 80% of the economy was accounted for by the private sector. Although poverty is a huge problem–he said–there has been a recent drop from 52% to the 43% or lower by some estimates–with the level of extreme poverty dropping from 11% to 7%. The ambassador said that one of the Embassy’s big initiatives is to help develop the economy in a "much more broad-based and sustainable" way.

Evans said Armenia has a solid constitution but that "implementation is the important thing." He praised President Kocharian for his tough meetings with the tax and customs service administrators in an effort to more fairly implement tax collection.

Evans also thanked Armenia for its recent deployment of 50 non-combat soldiers to Iraq–saying he recognized the fears for the safety of the historic Armenian community there.

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