Washington, 13 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. congressman has called for an increase in U.S. humanitarian and economic aid to Armenia.
Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said yesterday that U.S. aid to that country should be expanded and should include assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed ethnic Armenian enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Pallone's press spokesman Ted Loud told our Washington correspondent that Pallone believes there is considerable support in both chambers of the U.S. Congress for increasing aid to Armenia.
The White House has asked the Congress to approve expenditures of $ 85 million on aid to Armenia in the 1998 fiscal year beginning in October. That is $ 10 million less than current spending.
Loud recalled that last year's request was also lower than the amount Congress ultimately approved for aid to Armenia.
Pallone commented on the funding for aid in remarks to a group of U.S. congressional supporters of Armenia. He helped found the group two years ago to coordinate U.S. legislative efforts on Armenian issues and is its current chairman. The district Pallone represents in Congress has a large Armenian-American community.
At the Wednesday meeting, Pallone reported on a trip he made to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh two weeks ago.
Pallone said that in Yerevan he met with president Lev Ter-Petrossian, as well as Armenian Prime Minister Armen Sarkisyan and other leading government officials. He also had talks with opposition presidential candidate Vazgen Manoukhian.
Pallone said a common complaint was the lack of independent media in the country. He said Soviet-style state control of press and television was a major concern with most of the people he encountered.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, Pallone became the first U.S. congressman to address the local parliament. He told them he supports their bid for independence from Azerbaijan or some other form of closer association with Armenia.
In Washington Wednesday, Pallone said his visit gave him an overwhelming sense that people living in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot accept sovereignty from Azerbaijan not only for security reasons but for historical reasons as well, and that they would never trust Azerbaijani authorities because of the persecution they have endured over the decades.
He said his chief concern is that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh not have a solution imposed on them but have an opportunity to agree to a proposed settlement.
Pallone also urged that the United States play a larger role in the Minsk peace process which is trying to mediate the long-standing crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in separate testimony before two U.S. congressional committees this week that the United States stands ready to assume a larger role in the peace process.
She was asked yesterday in the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee what the United States is doing to resolve differences between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan in connection with a proposal to move Caspian Sea oil from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku through Armenia to Turkey.
Albright said the United States is aware of the need to deal with the problems in the region because of the strategic importance of the Caspian. "It's very complex," she said, adding "the United States is going to become more involved."
But Pallone took issue with this position, saying the question of Nagorno-Karabakh's status and peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia should be treated separately from the complexities of Caspian Sea oil exploitation. "These issues should be decoupled," he said.
Pallone said the main tasks for the group -- the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues -- now are to work for increased American economic investment in Armenia, for the lifting of the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades against Armenia and for what he described as "a stronger pro-active U.S. role supporting self-determination for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh."