US Looks to ?Reinvigorate? Ties with Armenia

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the United States is satisfied with its existing cooperation with Armenia and would like to expand it–as he paid a brief visit to Yerevan on Friday.

Armitage–the most high-ranking US official to visit the country in more than four years–also reaffirmed Washington’s strong support for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border and ruled out stronger US pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the Karabagh conflict.

"I came today at the request of President Bush because we’ve been spending a lot of time on Afghanistan and on Iraq–and we haven’t had the same amount of involvement in the Caucasus," he told RFE/RL. "Armenia is a very important country to us and we wanted to reinvigorate our relationship."

Armitage–who arrived in Armenia from Ukraine and proceeded to Azerbaijan later on Wednesday–said the purpose of the trip is to have "normal political consultations on regional–global–and bilateral issues."I didn’t come with a specific message," he said after a meeting with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian that preceded his talks with President Robert Kocharian.

"We have a very high degree of cooperation with Armenia. I would even note that Armenia is making some people available from the military to be involved in Iraq in convoying and what not. I think that speaks very well of the nation."

The commen’s were reciprocated by Kocharian–who was quoted as telling the US official that he supports "the expansion of bilateral cooperation."President Kocharian expressed his satisfaction with the current level of Armenian-American relations," reported his press office.

As the number two man at the US State Department–Armitage is the first senior member of the Bush administration to visit Armenia. "I am delighted with the time I have had with the foreign minister and the president," Armitage told a concluding news conference.

The Karabagh conflict was a major theme of the talks. But no details were divulged to the media–with Armitage vaguely noting that "there is a possibility eventually of a resolution." He made it clear that the responsibility is on the conflicting parties to find a mutually acceptable peace formula and nothing will be imposed on them "top down from the outside."

Armitage also disagreed with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s claim that a Karabagh settlement will become impossible if Turkey lifts its economic blockade imposed on Armenia in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan. "It seems to me that the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey would benefit the peoples of both sides rather dramatically and relatively quickly," he said. "We have had those discussions with our friends in Turkey."

The US has long been unsuccessfully pressing Turkey to reopen the border for commerce and traffic. The current government in Ankara signaled last year its readiness to do that before a Karabagh settlement but has not yet taken any steps in that direction. According to Armitage–the Turks have since been distracted by other–more pressing national security issues.

He said: "I think to be fair–our Turkish friends have had their hands full recently with concerns about northern Iraq and the ongoing Cyprus talks. I hope that as those concerns are ameliorated there will be a return of their attention to reopening of some border."

In a related development–the Armenian side renewed calls for the US to maintain parity in its modest military assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Bush administration’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2005 would allocate $8 million in military funding to Baku–four times more than to Yerevan.

The proposal has provoked angry protests from the Armenian-American lobbying groups and pro-Armenian members of the US Congress. The Armenian government has endorsed their argument that the aid disparity could undermine the balance of forces in the conflict zone.

But Armitage insisted that it is justified because Azerbaijan–unlike Armenia–has already sent combat troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and has been refueling on its territory US military aircraft bound for Iraq. "It was also noted by the Armenian side that our overall levels of assistance to Armenia are much greater than to Azerbaijan," he said–but added that "he temporary disparity is based on the need to relieve some of the burden on Azerbaijan."


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