Senators Sarbanes And Boxer Question US Ambassador Designate to Azerbaijan

–Ambassador Designate Anne Derse pledges no US financial support for railway bypassing Armenia; defends administration call to break military aid parity

WASHINGTON–DC–US Ambassador Designate to Azerbaijan Anne Derse responded to questions by Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Paul Sarbanes (D-MD)–Wednesday–on a series of US policy concerns focusing on Azerbaijan’s belligerent attitude toward Armenia and Karabagh–as well as the Administration’s budget request–which would break military assistance parity to Armenia and Azerbaijan–reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). Senators Sarbanes and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) had submitted the questions during the May 12 Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing–led by Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN).

In response to a question by Senator Sarbanes expressing concern about the Bush Administration’s Fiscal Year 2007 budget request which would provide over 40% more military assistance to Azerbaijan than Armenia–Ambassador Designate Derse defended the decision–stating that "we do not believe that the slight differences in military assistance? undermine prospects for peace or send the wrong message."

Derse was echoing a similar response by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice–again to a question by Senator Sarbanes at a Senate hearing in February 2006. Secretary Rice had noted that "the minor increase in FMF [Foreign Military Finance] for Azerbaijan as proposed in the President’s budget request in January does not signal any change in the US position on Nagorno-Karabagh."

Senator Boxer specifically questioned Derse about the US response to the Azeri destruction of the historic Armenian cemetery of Julfa in the Azeri controlled region of Nakhichevan. Azeri soldiers decimated the cemetery–which included thousands of cross-stone carvings–known as "khatchkars," in December 2005. The ANCA had urged US Ambassador Reno Harnish to visit the site and investigate the demolition. Senator Boxer asked if Derse would "visit the cemetery site and commit [herself] to investigating the demolition of this unique cemetery." Derse has yet to submit a response to Senator Boxer’s inquiries.

"We would like to thank Senators Sarbanes and Boxer for raising key concerns about the destruction of Julfa and military parity agreement with Ambassador Designate Derse," stated ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian. "We remain troubled by the Administration’s retreat from its 2001 agreement to maintain military aid parity and are hopeful the Congressional appropriators will honor this agreement to ensure military aid balance to the region." The House Foreign Operations Subcommittee is set to discuss the issue during their mark-up of the FY 2007 foreign aid bill scheduled for this Friday–May 19.

In response to Senator Sarbanes’ question on efforts toward regional economic integration in the Caucasus–Derse noted that the "opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia would contribute to the economies of both countries," but made no reference to the 18-year Azeri blockade of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh.

Derse did–however–make specific mention of recent efforts to build a railway line connecting Turkey–Georgia and Azerbaijan–stating "because the proposed railway would bypass Armenia–and thus not be beneficial to regional integration–we have no plans to support such a railway financially." Legislation restricting US aid to the railway project due to the exclusion of Armenia has been introduced by Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and has the support of Senate Deputy Majority Whip Wayne Allard (R-CO). Similar legislation in the House has been introduce by Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI)–Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and George Radanovich (R-CA) and currently has 82 cosponsors.

In her response–Derse reiterated the State Department’s support for "the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan" and noted–"the future status of Nagorno Karabagh is a matter of negotiations between the parties." She stressed that both the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been forewarned that "any attempt at a military solution to the conflict would only deepen its tragic impact."

During the hearing–Chairman Lugar–who has visited the Caucasus and met with former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev–expressed concerns about democracy in Azerbaijan and transparency associated with the large influx of oil-wealth into that country. Derse responded that "promotion of democracy–freedom–and human rights is indeed a top priority in our relationship with Azerbaijan," and went on to express a commitment to "working to promote transparent and accountable government–an independent judiciary and parliament–promotion of basic freedoms–including religious freedom and freedom of assembly."

Anne Derse is a Foreign Service Officer with more than a quarter century of experience. She most recently served as Director for Biodefense Policy at the Homeland Security Council. Her prior postings have included service as Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs at the US Embassy in Iraq and at the US Mission to the European Union. Derse also has held posts in the Philippines–South Korea–Belgium–and Singapore–among other locations.

The complete text of Senator Sarbanes’ questions and Derse’s responses are provided below.

Questions for the Record Submitted to
Ambassador-Designate Anne Derse
By Senator Paul Sarbanes
Senate Foreign Relations Committee

May 12–2006

Question: What steps will you take in response to President Aliyev’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric and actions–such as his threats to restart the war against Nagorno-Karabagh–his call for a return of Nagorno-Karabagh "no matter what it takes," and his proposals for vast increases in military spending? What impact do you believe such actions will have on the prospects for a negotiated settlement in Nagorno-Karabagh?

Answer: We support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and hold that the future status of Nagorno-Karabagh is a matter of negotiation between the parties. Despite promising indications at present–both Armenia and Azerbaijan have much to do to prepare their publics for the compromises any just agreement will entail. We have told the presidents of both countries that any attempt at a military solution to the conflict would only deepen its tragic impact.

Although the Rambouillet meeting between the two presidents marked a temporary stall in negotiations–the process has gained momentum again with a series of individual visits by the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to the region. An agreement on Nagorno-Karabagh is within the grasp of the two presidents now. We believe that 2006 is the best window of opportunity for Presidents Aliyev and Kocharian to come to a mutually agreeable solution that will provide the basis for a lasting peace between their two countries. This will require acts of political courage by each president as they prepare their respective publics for a peace settlement. We hope the presidents will seize the opportunity to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict soon so that the important work of post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization can begin.

If confirmed–I plan to continue to work toward a settlement–along with my colleagues at the Department of State.

Question: Despite US and international calls for regional cooperation and economic integration–Turkey and Azerbaijan continue their illegal decade-long blockade of land-locked Armenia. Azerbaijan and Turkey are now escalating this policy of isolation by planning to build a railroad line to connect Turkey and Azerbaijan–excluding Armenia.

There is currently legislation pending that would prevent any US financing of the approximately $800 million venture. Do you intend to raise concerns about the railway? What steps will you take to end Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenia?

Answer: The US Government strongly encourages regional integration in the Caucasus. Removing trade barriers would improve regional integration and enhance economic cooperation and development within and beyond the region. Regional integration should–of course–include all countries of the region. We have long believed that opening the border between Turkey and Armenia would contribute to the economies of both countries and to such important broader areas as energy security for Europe and Eurasia.

Because the proposed railway would bypass Armenia–and thus not be beneficial to regional integration–we have no plans to support such a railway financially. If confirmed–I will strongly support the Administration’s efforts to pursue regional integration for all countries in the region.

Question: In the aftermath of September 11th–Congress granted the President limited and conditional authority to waive Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act–with the understanding that the administration would ensure military parity between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However–in this year’s budget–the President requested over $1 million more in military aid for Azerbaijan than for Armenia. On what basis has the administration decided to depart from its previous commitment to provide equal amounts of military assistance for Armenia and Azerbaijan?

Answer: It is US policy to ensure that our security assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan does not affect the military balance between the two states–but it is not the Administration’s view that military funding levels for Armenia and Azerbaijan should be identical. As Secretary Rice said recently in testimony before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee on Appropriations–we believe slight differences in military assistance can be tolerated between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The waiver of Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act every year since 2002 has allowed us to provide military assistance that enhances Azerbaijan’s interoperability with NATO and US forces and furthers US peacekeeping objectives–as well as assistance aimed at advancing democratic and market economic reform. Assistance to Armenia for similar purposes requires no waiver.

As a Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group–our goal is to help Armenia and Azerbaijan achieve a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. Military assistance to both countries in light of that ongoing conflict is carefully considered and calibrated to ensure that it does not hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Progress is being made in the negotiation process and we continue to view 2006 as the best window for the sides to reach an agreement. At the same time–we are strongly urging the presidents to prepare their publics for peace. We do not believe that the slight differences in military assistance in the FY 2007 budget request undermine prospects for peace or send the wrong message.

Question: Do you believe that Azerbaijan deserved to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council? How did the US vote on Azerbaijan’s candidacy? What steps will you take to improve respect for human rights in Azerbaijan?

Answer: The vote of the United States on these issues is always confidential. We stand ready to work with all the new members of the UN Human Rights Council. We will urge Azerbaijan will use this opportunity to fulfill its commitments to make real progress on advancing democracy and improve fundamental respect for human rights both domestically and throughout the world. If confirmed–I will continue to urge the Government of Azerbaijan to fulfill its own human rights commitments–and will look for opportunities to advance this effort through diplomacy–programs–and other measures.

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