LITTLE ARMENIA–Representative Adam Schiff in an exclusive interview with Asbarez Editor Ara Khachatourian for Horizon Television on Wednesday discussed death of Karabakh Army junior sergeant Armen Hovhannesyan on the Karabakh-Azerbaijan border, condemning continued Azeri aggression against Armenians and shed light on this month’s announcement by President Barack Obama that envisions Little Armenia within a national program called the “Promise Zone.”
Schiff also discussed efforts to secure the exhibition of the Orphan Rug, an update on the Armenian Genocide resolution pending in Congress and status of US assistance to Armenia, Karabakh and Javakhk.
Below is the transcript of that interview.
ARA KHACHATOURIAN: Congressman Schiff I want to start out with something that happened a couple of days ago. There was another incident on the Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan border where an Armenian soldier was killed. Actually he was trying to repel a two-pronged attack by Azeri forces, and was shot and killed saving several lives of his comrades as well as other civilians. When is this going to stop?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: It’s a very good question, and it’s unfortunately one in a series of provocative and murderous acts along the line of control, which if not explicitly sanctioned by Aliyev’s administration, certainly is supported implicitly, and this is the real problem. There was recently a meeting of the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeri Foreign Minister expressed support for a peaceful negotiated resolution. But you can’t say that if you are condoning and permitting the kind of murder and violence along the line of control that they are. When you make a hero out of an ax-murderer like [Ramil] Safarov you are sending a message to your troops that the murder of Armenians, the murder of citizens of Karabakh, is not only acceptable but laudable.
If they are serious about a peaceful resolution, they have to prepare their people for peace, and they’re not doing it at all. And if they are going to be this malevolent an actor, the international community really has to speak out strongly. I think we have to stop supporting them and drive home the message that this kind of dangerous, provocative, and fatal conduct is just not going to persist.
A.K.: This is coming two or three days before another meeting between the foreign ministers, which is scheduled for Friday. One thing that is always concerning, and this time around it came from the US Minsk Group Co-Chairman James Warlick, there’s this forced parity that in statements that are being made all of a sudden it’s the two sides that need to watch their manner, as it were. Do you think since there is failure on the international leadership to do the proper condemnation, should Congress basically withdraw a US military aid to Azerbaijan?
A.S: Well I think we certainly should and I urged that we do exactly that last year for many reasons. One, for the reason you mentioned which is, they’re not acting responsibly they’re acting violently. But, two, they don’t need the money. They are a wash in Petroleum resources. Why on earth do we feel the need to provide them with any kind of military or economic support? Particularly when there are a lot of dire unmet needs here at home. So I don’t think it makes any sense, and it sends a conflicting message. Both in continued support but also in statements like you’re alluding to where people want to have this false equivalence, and say, “well both sides need to do this, and both sides need to do that,” out of a desire not to offend. But the effective which is if one side is a bad actor, then they feel there is a no discouragement from continued bad conduct because all it’s going to be greeted with is kind of a benign indifference response, “well everybody is to blame.” I think we need to speak out in very plain simple clear terms about the Azeri aggression. I still think we need to call for justice in the case of Safarov, and we need to let the regime know that we’re not going to tolerate this, and we’re not going to accept this and it’s not going to be business as usual.
A.K.: Of course our hearts go out to the family of the soldiers. We closed last year on an interesting piece that a rug became a focal point of a tug-of-war, I guess, between the Armenian community and the White House. And of course you have to want to do vocal supporters of having that rug displayed. Can you give us a little bit of background on that and what we should look forward to?
A.S.: Absolutely. The rug was, as you know, was made by orphans of genocide. It was a gift to then Pres. Coolidge as a thank you to the relief efforts that came from this country. It’s in the White House possession. It’s been in the White House position since it was given in 1923. It has seldom been displayed, and there was an event planned at the Smithsonian where it was to be displayed. The White House abruptly changed course and declined to allow the rug to be displayed saying that it wasn’t an appropriate event for the display of the rug because it was in connection with a book release. So I’ve now begun organizing an event on the hill where we will highlight the efforts of the relief organizations during and after the genocide. I’ve written to the White House to say I want to display this is a part of that. It won’t be in connection with a book publication, and we are in constant touch with the White House on this trying to get a yes answer from the curator. We’re going to keep pressing on this, and I intend to go forward with or without their cooperation. There’s a sister rug in Massachusetts which we hope to exhibit if they remain steadfast in their obstructionism. But I hope that won’t be the case. They did finally, after a lot of pressure, release a statement when they had the earlier declination to say that, “well this wasn’t an appropriate event.” Well if it wasn’t, then tell us what an appropriate event is and we will structure that way. But to me it just adds insult to injury from an administration that has not spoken plainly on the genocide that they will make it difficult for us to display one of the more tangible historic artifacts of that genocide.
A.K.: This also brings up another issue, which is that this rug, which is technically the property of the United States and the people of United States, is being used as a political pawn in this genocide issue. What do we have to look forward to us 2015 is right around the corner.
A.S.: Well that’s a good question. I mean if it’s even an issue or even tough for them to release a rug you know what does that say about the willingness to step up to the plate. It’s discouraging but we cannot allow ourselves to be deterred. I think we have the next 14 months leading up to the 100th anniversary to apply maximum pressure on the administration and on the Congress to recognize the genocide. I still hope that this President who spoke so articulately as a Senator about genocide, and as a candidate for the president will do so in the Oval Office. I think our best opportunity will be that 100th anniversary.
A.K.: What is going on with the genocide resolution that was introduced last year by you? What’s going on with that? How is it proceeding?
A.S.: We continue to gather co-sponsors. We I think have about almost 50 co-sponsors. We don’t have a green light from the house majority to take it up in committee, or on the floor. So until that changes we are at a bit of a logjam.
But I think we need to use this time to organize, to develop support, to set our sights probably more realistic on the 100th anniversary than the 99th. That’s not going to mean that we don’t try to put pressure on the President to say the right thing in April. But we ought to all feel the sense of urgency around this centennial. And more significantly in my view in light of the fact that there still only of the few survivors left, and we have to make every effort to recognize the genocide while they’re still with us.
A.K.: I want to shift a little bit and talk about some local issues. Just last week, or a of couple weeks ago, you were in the White House with Pres. Obama announcing the “Promise Zone” which your district and Little Armenia falls into. What is the Promise Zone program?
A.S.: This is very exciting for our region, and in particular those areas of little Armenian and Hollywood. Because what it means is in the four “Promise Zones” that the President announced that any federal grant applications that involve young people, at risk youth, education, healthcare, exercise, open space, social services, that those grant applications move to the top of the list in terms of federal government grants. Those “Promise Zones” are areas where there are strong stakeholder organizations who are committed to working with each other to try to improve the quality of life there, to improve opportunities for success among people growing up there. So it’s a very exciting thing in an area where there’s a lot of poverty. People don’t associate poverty with Hollywood, but there are a lot of very poor areas of Hollywood. These resources it’s a new priority. It will be a wonderful thing. There is a lot of competition for “Promise Zones” and we are very fortunate that this part of our community got picked.
A.K.: How did that picking process happen? Were you directly involved in asking the White House to include your district?
A.S.: I was. But I think more significant than my weighing in certainly were the groups themselves that support this collaborative effort. That really put together kind of an action plan for what they would do if they got this designation. And they did a marvelous job. I was proud to support their work and delighted when the President made his selections. We were keeping our fingers crossed. This will also be beneficial to another high priority of mine in that same area, which is the Hollywood Central Park. This is a proposal to cap the Hollywood freeway with a park; connecting two sections of Hollywood that have been divided by that freeway for two decades now. It will be a tremendous new green space in one of the most park poor parts of Los Angeles. And we’ll have our own Central Park, much like New York. It will be transformative. It will be something that Los Angelenos can be proud of for generations. And we have a chance to be the one to have to make that happen. Imagine if we were part of the generation to make that happen in New York and elsewhere. This is Los Angeles’ opportunity.
A.K.: That’s great. What about in your statements earlier you also mentioned that this opens up opportunities for employment growth and community involvement. How does that fit in, and how can it be applicable to let’s say the Little Armenia community?
A.S.: That’s very good point because it still remains that primitive challenge for most families, is the economics. Trying to stay at work, and hold down sometimes multiple jobs. This will help in terms of everything from potentially job-training to the creation of jobs. For example if that park goes forward, because it is advantaged as part of the “Promised Zone,” then there will be many thousands of jobs in the building of that park in the infrastructure to cap that freeway. So it could be a great economic boost for the area as well.
A.K.: When we are reported this news, especially on our social media platforms, it just exploded. So there is a lot of interest in the community. What can the community due to get engaged in this program?
A.S.: Well, there are many organizations that provide vital services in the area that are really struggling. The Armenian Relief Society does a fabulous job. But many of the nonprofit organizations took a real toll during the recession both because charitable giving falls off during a recession, and the need for the service goes up exponentially. It’s kind of a perfect storm.
Now when the ARS and other such organizations apply for federal grants to provide those services those grant applications will move to the top of the sack. No guarantee they’re going be approved. They’re still going to have to make the case for the fact that they can be effective, cost-effective, and good accountability and checks and balances. But everything else being equal, compared to other applications from other parts of the state and country, they’re going to prevail. So that’s great news for an area that’s really desperately in need of those services.
A.K.: You highlighted the youth programs. What do you envision those being as far as helping out the community?
A.S.: You know it will really depend on what the stakeholders in the community feel is the highest priority. But it can be everything from afterschool tutoring, to athletic opportunities, to being able to hike in Angeles Forest, outward-bound kind of programs. There’s no end to the list of what can be accessible. It could mean improve mental health services for those youth or for the parents of those youth, if that’s the need. Substance abuse counseling, or accelerated achievement programs, trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, new education opportunities, early childhood education are all part of the program.
Essentially what the president wants these Promise Zones to do, is look at, you know, essentially starting with pregnancy and all through a childhood, do everything we can in a really collaborative, cohesive, rap-around way to make sure those kids have every opportunity to succeed. And the same opportunities as others and this ought to help make that possible.
A.K.: On another issue that has been big in the headlines and a high priority: What has been the district enrollment been in the affordable care act program that has been offered both in the state and nationally?
A.S.: Thee good news is that enrollment in California, and I think our district is representative, has been pretty solid. We’re one of the most successful states in terms of health insurance exchange. We had some problems, not as many as the federal website. We had our own challenges. One of the more significant ones was a decision that Covered California, the state exchange made, that people who had existing policies, that went well into this year were gonna get those policies terminated prior to the end of their terms. Now I think that was a mistake, but that’s the judgment that the Covered California made. They made that because they were concerned that if they allow those policies to continue, people who are healthier, who had the less expensive policies will keep those. People who were sicker were going to the exchange and therefore the cost of any policy in the exchange would go up. While there’s some truth to that I think that they should have honored the president’s commitment that if people like a policy they could keep that policy at least until that policy expires because it’s never been the case that anyone can guarantee that your insurer will give you the same policy with the same premiums. I certainly never had that benefit, but my family and I enrolled through an exchange and it’s gonna open up a lot of health care opportunities for millions of Americans that can’t get coverage because right now they couldn’t afford it or couldn’t get coverage because they had a pre-existing condition, but you know we are going to have to get through this transition period like you do with any major reform where there going to be challenges and we’ve seen some of them and we’ll see others
A.K.: When we spoke last we talked about this issue of US aid to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. You were certainly very vocal last year in urging Congress to double that aid to Karabakh. What is going on in that process right now?
A.S.: We just finished an omnibus appropriations bill for the fiscal year that we’re in the middle of. And we did that because we were not able to get to an agreement on it in the regular course of business. That omnibus-spending bill uses a practice that the administration has started employing over the last couple years where it doesn’t specify country level funding.
Traditionally we’ve fought for certain level funding for Armenia and the lobby for Azerbaijan has fought for a certain amount for Azerbaijan and we want to make sure that we got at least as much if not more than Azerbaijan and that we got a specific amount for Nagorno-Karabakh. They’ve done away with that approach because I think as a practical matter they’re making cuts to foreign assistance across the board. And if they don’t identify what the amounts are for specific countries it’s hard to point to which countries are being cut. So what we’re going to have to do is now that the appropriations bill overall levels are known, we’re going to have to fight to make sure that Armenia gets a commensurate share of support.
Similarly, for Nagorno-Karabakh, we did get language in the bill that talks about the importance of meeting the humanitarian needs there and the concerns we have that funds have been allocated there have not always been spent the way Congress intended or spent at all, but we’re going to have to stay after it.
I’ve met with the head of USAID to press home the importance of utilizing those resources. He’s committed to doing that. In fact, he got some flack from the Azeri lobby for his commitment along those lines, but one other initiative that I’m working on also, it’s not specific appropriation issue, but there are a lot of land mines that are still in the region and they’re in zones that some of these NGOs are not permitted to do de-mining operations. Well, that’s a real problem because young kids in these areas walk out in these fields and they don’t know that there’s an invisible line on the ground between contested areas and uncontested areas and they get themselves blown-up. I’d like to see us overcome this terrible predicament where we have the resources to do the de-mining. We’re not doing it the way we should and we’re having a lot of people needlessly injured or killed.
A.K.: Actually in conversations with the Halo Trust, I have always asked them whether the appropriation toward Karabakh is going toward demining. Is that the organization that you’ll be working with in that de-mining process?
A.S.: That’s certainly one of them and the issue is making sure that these funds and these operations carry on wherever the land mines are because there’s simply no way to prevent people from wandering into those areas. And this should have been a problem of a century ago, but it’s a problem that’s still very much with us. And imagine how petrifying it would be as a parent to know that your kids have to be careful where they go and there is no way to really tell and the agony of those that have their kids injured.
A.K.: As far as the aid to Karabakh you said some of it has not been spent or has not been allocated, what happens to that? Does it roll over to the next phase or does it just get ignored?
A.S.: Well you know thus far unfortunately the State Department has ignored it. We put in language saying that, initially put up language, saying that they could spend up to five million, or up to three million, or whatever the number was. And then we would find that they didn’t feel required to spend up to that amount, which is a rare problem to have. Usually you say up to that amount and they go right up to that. So then we fought for language that said they would spend a minimum of that amount. And that I think we succeeded in getting in the initial house draft. When the Azeris had the reaction they did, the Safrov case, and we protested this and called for cancellation of any funding for Azerbaijan, the Azeris lobbied to the language on Nagorno-Karabakh taken out as a kind of tit for tat. So unfortunately this is the nature of the legislative fights we have over this, but when the State Department and USAID doesn’t use that money it generally reverts back and is not available the following year.
A.K.: And how can we get some kind of detailed accounting of what this aid is spent on. There are various NGOs operating in Armenia that have access to some kind of grants. How are we able to get that kind of transparency I guess?
A.S.: That’s information we can request to the State Department and USAID. We’ve also utilized the Congressional Research Service to document over time of the amounts that were authorized by our committee to be expended in Nagorno-Karabakh. How much have they actually used over the years. So we asked the research service to do that. They did provide us a report. That report helped us make the case that we should put in language requiring a minimum of expenditures because plainly there’s now historical pattern of ignoring what the congress has requested.
A.K.: The other area of interest is obviously immediately north of Armenia, the Southern Georgia’s Javakhk region, which is populated by Armenians. I believe there’s a move to also have some kind of US funding for specifically for that region. Any updates on that?
A.S.: Yes. I began by meeting with the President of Georgia to discuss this and at that time the president was very amenable to that, putting that focus on some of those regions. Not only because they’re Armenian enclaves but also because some of them have some of the greatest need in Georgia. I then met with Rajiv Shah to talk about this and to make sure it was a priority. We worked on language for the foreign operations bill that initially again we had in the house draft putting that priority on funding there. We’ve had some interesting discussions about it. One of the challenges which was raised with us about having the Javakhk specific language was that if we do that there are other groups that are going to want specific language for other parts of Georgia or it may create an internal dynamic in Georgia where what they want to do and they already want to provide there they have a problem in doing. Obviously what we want to do there is be productive not counter-productive, but we have communicated to all parties working on this that this is a priority area. It’s an area with great need and we expect them to pay attention to it.
A.K.: I want to quickly touch on Syria. As we speak, a peace conference is unfolding in Geneva, and the humanitarian toll that this crisis has brought is just incredible. I just want you to address that issue. You’ve gone on record—in fact, in our newspaper—about the need to look at the Christian minorities. What can you say about Syria?
A.S.: Well, Ara, it’s just an appalling situation. The loss of life has been devastating. Over 120,000-130,000 people killed. The atrocities now being committed on both sides are just ghastly. You have the government dropping barrel bombs loaded with shrapnel into heavily populated neighborhoods in Aleppo. You have some of the Islamist rebel factions somehow allied with al-Qaeda, beheading people, tying people up and shooting them in mass executions, kidnapping people, forcing Christians to convert to Islam. It’s just an appalling humanitarian disaster.
One of the things that I’ve been pushing for the last year is an effort to try to grant humanitarian parole to many thousands of Syrians, predominantly Syrian Christians who have family in the United States, they had approved immigration, family-based immigration petitions, but because of the cap on visas, they have to sit and wait. Sitting and waiting in Syria right now is not a very attractive option because your life is very much in jeopardy, particularly if you’re a member of a minority. And this really historic Christian community is at a devastating risk right now. Not only do I think we need to grant this humanitarian parole and several of my colleagues have joined me in this effort, it’s a bipartisan effort, I met recently with the deputy Secretary of Homeland Security to press the case. I’ve been having conversations national Security Council to press the case. But we also need to make sure that at the conference going on in Geneva in and any future conference that whatever success or government there is in Syria protects the rights of its minority population. And it’s just absolutely devastating. But I can tell you that no one has done more on this issue in terms of the Christian and minority communities there or started earlier on this problem than I have.
I think we have built a pretty good coalition in Congress and we’re trying to raise a lot of awareness on this. Senator Durbin recently held a hearing in the Senate to focus on trying to provide relief for the refugee program. Which is another avenue that we can help. The one thing that we are doing quite considerably is providing financial help. But I think probably the most important thing in addition to that is providing direct assistance by allowing these families to come and be re-united with their families in the United States, and pressing the case in these international negotiations for the imperative of protecting this minority communities
A.K.: I guess this issue percolated at an instance, the two weeks or a month, over the summer where there was talk of attacking Syria by the US, and then there was the deal with Russia. I think the sensitivities of our community, especially here, lean more toward identifying who the so-called rebels are. It is just recently being discussed on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post about exactly who these rebels are. For example, we reported last week that there were Azeri mercenaries fighting among the Islamists. I think that the issue of addressing the issue of minorities should also come from that perspective. What are your thoughts?
A.S.: Unfortunately in Syria what started out as a more secular protest movement like much of the Arab Spring began, has been hijacked by a lot of radical Islamist factions. What Assad threatened in the beginning when he cracked down these protest became a self- fulfilling prophecy. This time “it’s me or the Islamists.” We hear this a lot from authoritarian regimes in the region. We heard this from Mubarak, “it’s me or the Islamists.” And because they deny any secular opposition they have de facto created that situation.
In Egypt all you had was a choice was between the Muslim brotherhood and the military, when the people who were at the vanguard of the revolution in Egypt didn’t want either. They didn’t want a military dictatorship and they didn’t want a Islamic dictatorship.
But unfortunately the conflict in Syria has spiraled completely out-of-control, and now some of the numerous fighting forces in opposition to the regime are in fact the Jihadists. And they have been flocking to Syria. Many of them are not Syrians They’re are not indigenous to that part of the country, but their flocking. Much like when people were flocking to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. And this is going to create a real danger and risk for us for Europe as people who are trained in bomb making, in terrorism when that conflict ends, or if it ends, come back to the United States or go to Europe and are encouraged to commit acts of terror there. So it’s a horrible problem I think we have to be really open eyed about this and recognize that neither side there’s no good side anymore in this conflict if there ever was. There are atrocities being committed by the regime are there atrocities being committed by the opposition, and I wish I could see the clear path.
Probably in Geneva a success would be very modest and consist of cease-fires in certain areas, and end of the siege in certain areas so the people who are starving, will have the ability to bring medical supplies and food and using that as a basis to take a pause in violence. Then entering into a discussion of what a transition government respectful of the minorities in Syria would look like that it’s probably the optimal course. As a practical matter it will be hard to make progress on that until both sides realize that they are not going to win militarily. And the opposition is getting the sense that they’re not going to displace there’s there is a military early the regime will ultimately get the sense that they’re not going to be able to eliminate the violent opposition. And hopefully we can have a pause in the violence in such that both sides can agree to a transition government and a better future and a safer future for the people that are living there.
A.K.: Let’s move on to Turkey because we’ve seen the The Washington Post, and New York Times calling on the Obama administration to curb it’s open armed support of Turkey especially given the violations of human rights, press and now this new graft scandal that has erupted in Turkey. From an Armenian perspective this also goes hand-in-hand with the addressing of Armenian Genocide issue within Turkey. So how do you view this issue playing out?
A.S.: I think a lot of the turmoil that is racking Turkey right now is part in parcel of the same phenomenon related to the genocide denial. What we saw even before the protests in Istanbul, which got the started over plans to develop or demolish a park and build condominiums or whatever they were going to build there.
A.K.: Which incidentally was on an Armenian cemetery.
A.S.: Even before that we saw increasing authoritarianism on the part of that Erdogan’s government we saw increasing repression of Turkish journalists. And of course we had seen for years in the repression of anyone, a journalist, an activist, or an ordinary citizen who had the guts to talk about the genocide they brought up their Nobel prize-winning author probably the most famous Turkish author in recent memory, on charges for mentioning the genocide. And of course we know what happened to Hrant Dink, one of the publishers of the main newspapers in the Armenian community someone I had the pleasure of meeting many years ago and who I was greatly impressed with.
So what’s happening now with the corruption scandal with the crackdown, it’s all interrelated. Where you don’t have a free press—and Turkey is becoming one of the leading a prisons for journalists—you are going to have corruption flourish because there’s no want to shed a light what’s going on. And I don’t know where this is heading. I don’t know if anyone knows where this is heading. It’s interesting that the Turkish government response has been to blame us; to say that we are somehow in cahoots with an imam who lives in the United States in exile from Turkey. It’s kind of a preposterous theory but it shows a bit of desperation of the Erdogan administration. And why we would want to give unequivocal support to a government like that I don’t know. But I certainly know that it is this policy, or an absence of a policy, that is permitted Turkey to deny the Genocide has not served us well. And I think it really contributes kind of to the behavior that we see. If we are not willing to speak honestly with Turkey about the genocide, then why on earth should they speak honestly about it. And that policy has just got to change.
A.K.: I want to talk about your new district. It seems like yesterday that the elections happened. You have one coming up this year. What have you learned in your new district? How is it different from your previous experience?
A.S.: I feel very fortunate the new district is a wonderful, interesting, diverse district. It goes all the from West Pasadena to West Hollywood. It has a lot of the areas that I had in the last district, It has a lot of areas that I had 10 years ago before the last re-districting, like Silverlake, Los Feliz, Atwater Village. It has new areas like Echo Park and Hollywood itself, as well as Hollywood Hills and West Hollywood. It’s really just been a treat to get to know the homeowners, and homeowner organizations, and stakeholder groups. It’s very invigorating. It’s sad in a way to lose the communities that you’ve had for a long time, and some of those communities I represented for over 16 years. But I was very lucky in the new communities that where re-districted it into this district. It’s a wonderful challenge and I didn’t think it was possible, but the Armenian community in the new district is even larger then it was in the old district and that’s quite wonderful.
A.K.: Thank you Congressman. We’ll check back in with you in a couple of months and see how it’s going. Thank you so much for taking the time out to come out to our studios