BY HASMIK HARUTYUNYAN
YEREVAN (Armenpress)—Now, more than ever, the United States wants further expansion of ties with Armenia, says United States Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern. In an exclusive interview with Armenpress News Agency, the Ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Armenia John Heffern introduced his viewpoints on the two countries’ bilateral ties, current changes in Armenia’s business environment, the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, and the frozen process of the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations.
HASMIK HARUTYUNYAN: Mr. Ambassador, it’s been over two years you are in Armenia, what is your impression?
AMB. JOHN HEFFERN: These have been a wonderful two years and it has been a great experience for me and my wife. My wife is now back in the States, as there are some medical issues with our grandson, but we’ve really enjoyed our two years in Armenia, we have had a very valuable and fulfilling time here. What we like about it is it’s a country, of course, with many challenges, regional and domestic challenges, that makes it interesting. There are also many opportunities, wonderful people, talented people, who are doing their best to make this country as successful as possible. And I want to be a part of that. The Embassy is doing its best to be a part of that, to work, to promote the good things about Armenia and where we see some shortcomings, challenges, we try to be helpful to promote corrections. So that balance of challenges and opportunities plus wonderful people make it great to us.
HH: As an ordinary citizen, what are the issues that you have come across here and what are the things that you would like to see addressed?
AJH: Well, I think that I have left my private life back in Washington and I am not sure I have much private life here. And I try not to speak as a private citizen, but only a representative of the U.S. Government. On the political side, of course, there are human rights issues, there are issues with corruption and transparency. We just recently issued a human rights report on these questions. So I hope that the Armenian people, civil society, the press, and government authorities and political parties will read that report and will see where they can do better.
But where there are problems, in addition to being frank in our assessment publicly, we also try to be supportive on the independence of the judiciary, election reforms, transparency, and anti-corruption. We are trying to find partners here and work with partners here to encourage and promote improvement in those areas. So again we try to balance our criticism, frankly it is a criticism, with support and encouragement. I think our biggest success in the last two and half years has been in deepening and improving our bilateral economic, trade, and investment relationship. And Armenia has improved the business climate. There is still work to do in those areas, certainly, but Armenia has improved its business climate to encourage more western investment.
I have seen many new investments in the area of information technology, computers, telecommunications, and I am confident they will continue. In tourism, in hotels; a couple of new U.S. hotels have opened up recently in Yerevan and outside of Yerevan. And very importantly, we were able to announce last month the signing of a very important energy deal, the hydro deal, between Contour Global Company and the Republic of Armenia on the Vorotan Hydro Plant. A very important U.S. investment, the biggest, if I am not wrong.
HH: You mentioned economic cooperation, and I would like you just to elaborate more on this, as well as on U.S.-Armenian relations in general.
AJH: As we of course see, diplomatic relations are quite robust, I think, in terms of high level dialogue and visits. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Armenia twice: the first time you had a US Secretary of State here in 18 years. And after meeting Foreign Minister Nalbandian, Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to come here sometime, too. And we hope to get him here sometime in this year. But the substance of the relationship is more important than the visits and meetings. We had a very productive bilateral economic meeting in Washington late last year with those in November. And in December we had a very productive high level defense consultation. Our defense department sent high level officials here to be with your Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Defense on a bilateral defense consultation. Our goal is deepening cooperation in economic spheres and also in the security field. We have a strong security relationship, NATO has a strong security relationship, with Armenia, that is important to us and I hope to Armenia as well. And we want to continue the dialogue around different questions.
A lot of people ask me what our reaction is to the present announcement that Armenia intends to join the Customs Union. Washington has been very clear that now, more than ever, the United States wants to improve its relationship with Armenia and be a better partner. The President and Government of Armenia are very clear that they want to continue their relationship with the European Union, the USA, and the Eastern Partners.
HH: Is the forthcoming visit of the Secretary of State John Kerry regional? Could you please provide some details?
AJH: I do not have any details on the visit. Mr. Kerry is very much interested in the region; he is promoting the improvement of relations between Armenia and Turkey. The visit will be regional.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, you have already touched on the issue, but I wanted to highlight the speech by Secretary of State John Kerry at the US Senate, where he mentioned that Armenian-Turkish reconciliation is one of the issues that are on the agenda of US foreign policy. Now, what expectations could we have when Turkey is speaking about keeping relations frozen and introducing preconditions?
AJH: The former Secretary of State Clinton played quite an important role in the protocol negotiations and it was a very courageous decision by the presidents of Armenia and Turkey to agree to the signing of the protocols. And we continue to push Turkey to implement the protocols without preconditions and we respect the fact that Armenia continues to keep the protocols on the table and has not withdrawn from them. That’s very important, that Armenia has maintained its patience, even though it has been four years now, to try to make this a success. I will make one last point on that. One thing I have learned about Secretary Kerry is that he is not satisfied with the status-quo. He does not believe that any conflict is too complicated to be solved. He has achieved progress in many conflicts. And that’s why he has personally taken the lead in the two most intractable issues in our foreign policy: Iran’s nuclear issue and the Palestinian peace process. On all the issues in the region – the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenian-Turkish relations, any regional issues and challenges – Secretary Kerry is pushing us to push the parties, that’s you – Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan – to work for improvements and compromise.
HH: Next year is the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and the US is unique in the sense that every year on the day of remembrance on April 24, a statement is made by the US president and we appreciate it very much. But those countries who do not recognize and condemn the Genocide, are they not leaving a crime unpunished and, thus, encouraged?
AJH: The president’s statement is quite important and I am glad you recognize and appreciate it. Since his presidency, in his statements, President Obama has never denied any of the facts. 1.5 million Armenians massacred and that was one the most terrible tragedies of the 20th century. So we recognize the facts and we acknowledge the condemnation of the facts. The precise words and the policy decision the president will make next year, I cannot predict them, as the statement’s content is decided in Washington.
HH: Recently the LA city council recognized the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Do you see this as important? Will this eventually have an impact on the US decision as a country to recognize the Nagorno Karabakh Republic?
AJH: We have a federal system of governance and city councils and states make proclamations and pass resolutions on different issues. And the federal government is not involved in those resolutions or proclamations. There is also a separation of powers between the courts and Congress and the executive branches. And we try to maintain that separation as a part of our Constitution. So, sometimes it is complicated to assess who is doing what in our complicated system. I am focused on the executive branch, which does what the president and the secretary of state tell me to do. But I want to deal a little bit with the substance of your question. In the Nagorno Karabakh negotiations we want and are deeply committed to peaceful resolution. As one of the three Minsk Group co-chairs, we have been pushing for 18 years for a peace resolution. And the outline of the deal is pretty clearly laid out in public documents, which the Minsk Group co-chairs have agreed to. Because the two countries should come to a compromise and define a peaceful resolution. The status-quo is not acceptable by anybody. And when you look at it more broadly, the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict will actually improve Armenia’s regional position. So I will repeat that the Ambassador James Warlick is our lead person on this, pushing very hard, pushing Armenia and Azerbaijan very hard. And again I hope that the Armenian people will understand the reason he is doing that and the reason the co-chairs are doing that to find a peaceful resolution getting everybody involved.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned several times about a peaceful resolution and peaceful negotiations. Living in Armenia and getting acquainted with the situation more closely, can we consider it a peaceful situation when the ceasefire regime is constantly being violated and it’s only one side that violates the ceasefire regime and casualties are recorded on the border? Is it right to speak about peaceful resolutions and peaceful negotiations in this situation?
AJH: That’s exactly why “status quo” is unacceptable and exactly why we are pushing so hard for all parties to be creative and to find a peaceful resolution to this problem once and for all. And the co-chairs’ statements at the presidential level have been very clear condemning all violations, military rhetoric, and destabilizing arms purchases, all of which we think make it more difficult to find that peaceful resolution we are all trying to find.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, it seems to me you have partially answered my next question. Before and after the meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Paris, the Azerbaijani President again made bellicose statements and spoke about his desire to conquer Karabakh. Isn’t this today’s major problem and isn’t this standpoint of the neighboring country what undermines the peaceful negotiations?
AJH: As you know, President Sarkisian and President Aliyev met in Vienna in November and both Presidents reported publicly and privately that the atmosphere in that meeting was better than it has been for a long time. And so we are trying to build on that slight improvement in atmosphere for future meetings of foreign ministers and the presidents with the co-chairs and without the co-chairs. You are sure right that violations and military rhetoric do make prospects for a resolution more difficult, absolutely. That’s why the co-chairs have been so clear in their statements publicly and privately that it’s time to move beyond that kind of rhetoric, beyond those violations, to find the solution that everybody can accept for the benefit of all.