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Azerbaijan: Karabakh Aid Is Delayed

  • Emil Danielyan

U.S.-Armenian lobbying groups are expressing growing concern about what they see as the too slow implementation of legislative assistance programs for Nagorno-Karabakh. The groups consider the aid programs one of their most important achievements on Capitol Hill. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan.

Yerevan, 29 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian lobbying groups in the United States say that, while some effective aid work has been undertaken in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, U.S. government agencies have failed to stick to the schedule set by Congress.

In late 1997, Congress earmarked $12.5 million in assistance for Karabakh as a result of a successful lobbying campaign by the influential Armenian-American community. Subsequent amendments raised the volume of aid to $20 million. The bill was passed over the objections of the State Department, which worried that the aid would bypass the Azerbaijani government, whose sovereignty over Karabakh is internationally recognized. But for Armenian-Americans, the Congressional initiative effectively legitimized the enclave's de facto secession from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s.

The funds were supposed to be made fully available by the end of this month. But the U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID, has so far provided less than $12 million of the $20 million, mainly for infrastructure projects inside Karabakh. That has raised questions in Armenian-American organizations. Arpi Vartanian of the Armenian Assembly of America asks:

"What happened to the rest of it? What happened to these people who are residing in Karabakh and relying on that assistance that's supposed to come? And, more importantly, why is the State Department or USAID not fulfilling the intent of the U.S. Congress?"

Another lobbying organization, the Armenian National Committee of America, made the same point during testimony last month before a congressional subcommittee. Aram Sarafian said his group remains "deeply troubled by the slow pace of the administration's implementation of its package for Nagorno-Karabakh." He accused the State Department of attempting to block the aid due to "policy considerations."

Backing these concerns was the Congress's Armenian Caucus, a bipartisan group uniting dozens of members of Congress who support Armenian causes. Its co-chairman, Representative Frank Pallone (Democrat-New Jersey), also spoke at the subcommittee hearings.

To these concerns, USAID counters by saying that Congress actually had mandated the money as what is called a "soft earmark" -- that is, a program that does not specify where the funds should come from. USAID officials say that, because of the lack of specificity, they have had difficulties in getting all the funds.

This explanation is rejected by the Armenian Assembly of America's Vartanian, who claims that the agency is simply "hiding behind" an ambiguity in legislative language. Sarafian of the Armenian National Committee of America complained of what he described as "an unhealthy politicization" of the issue, which is seen by many as part of the diplomatic war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan -- which has attracted strong U.S. interest because of its vast oil reserves -- relies mainly on Western multinational oil companies to push its interests in Washington. Armenia, for its part, takes advantage of the clout enjoyed by the one million-strong Armenian-American community.

So far, the Armenian-Americans have been far more successful in Congress than the multinationals. Neither the powerful oil lobbies nor the Clinton administration itself has been able to lift severe legislative restrictions on U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan. The allocation of direct aid to Karabakh three years ago dealt another blow to Baku, which says that it has suffered much more than Armenia from the ongoing diplomatic conflict.

The head of USAID's Armenia office, Diane Tsitsos, said at a recent news conference in Yerevan that a resolution of the Karabakh conflict would greatly facilitate the implementation of the 1997 aid program.

But Vartanian counters that lack of progress in the Karabakh peace talks must not be an obstacle to the implementation of the aid project. Vartanian:

"That is a big 'if' for the people of Karabakh. And if it doesn't happen this year, next month, next year, why should the people suffer? Because someone is hopeful that there'll be a peace settlement?"

Yet even the almost $12 million in aid spent so far represents big money for the tiny mountainous enclave, whose population today is only 150,000. The sum is equal to about half of the annual budget of Karabakh's ethnic-Armenian government.

And USAID can already boast a long list of accomplishments in rebuilding Karabakh's war-ravaged villages, water supplies, sanitation, and other infrastructure. The bulk of the funds have been handled by the non-governmental Save the Children Federation, which provides other aid agencies sub-grants to carry out various projects.

Also, the American Red Cross has been rehabilitating medical facilities in some 25 Karabakh villages. Catholic Relief Services is to rebuild from scratch or rehabilitate more than 1,000 houses in rural areas. Another international charity, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has already issued small loans known as microcredits to more than 1,100 Karabakh women -- out of a target group of 1,455 -- to meet their subsistence-level needs. The average size of such loans is $300.

Vartanian acknowledges that what has already been done by USAID in Karabakh "looks very good." The local public health sector has been a key beneficiary. A modern maternity hospital has been built in Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert, and a number of district hospitals are being reconstructed and re-equipped.