In Armenia on the first stop of his first tour of the region, the new top U.S. diplomat for Europe and the former Soviet Union sounded optimistic about prospects for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
"I have only been in office for two weeks, but it seemed to me that there are such important and even historic developments going on in Armenia and the region that I should try to come out here as soon as possible," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon told journalists on June 9.
After holding what he called "excellent and productive talks" with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, Gordon also criticized the Armenian authorities' handling of the May 31 municipal elections in Yerevan.
According to official Armenian sources, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement were high on the agenda of his Yerevan talks. They also discussed the current state of U.S.-Armenian relations. Sarkisian was quoted by his office as telling Gordon that his government finds their expansion "extremely important."
Speaking at an ensuing news conference, Gordon reaffirmed Washington's strong support for the year-long fence-mending negotiations between Armenia and Turkey and an unconditional normalization of their relations.
"Turkey-Armenia normalization would benefit Turkey, it would benefit Armenia, and it would benefit the entire region. Because of that, we don't think it should be linked to anything else," he said, commenting on Turkish leaders' renewed linkage between the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border and a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.
Gordon stressed that normalization "should proceed within a reasonable time frame," meaning that "the process can't be infinite," he said. "It can't go on forever. I think the parties understand that."
"It's not for me to tell the parties exactly what that means," added the U.S. official. "But I think both sides do appreciate that they need to move forward, and I think they are, and I think they will."
Yerevan Vote 'Not Satisfactory'
Gordon also discussed with Sarkisian and Nalbandian U.S. economic assistance to Armenia under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. Some of that $236 million in assistance has been suspended by Washington because of Yerevan's poor democracy and human rights records.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said that Nalbandian briefed Gordon on "steps taken by the Armenian authorities to implement democratic reforms." It did not specify whether those steps include the May 31 municipal elections in Yerevan condemned as fraudulent by the opposition.
Gordon indicated that the United States did not consider the polls free and fair. "The results were only tallied up a couple of days ago, and so we don't have a formal statement or judgment right now," he said.
"But I have heard reports of irregularities and problems with the election. That wasn't up to the standard that we would like to see."
The U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, Marie Yovanovitch, who was also present at the news conference, said a more detailed assessment of the elections based on the findings of U.S. Embassy observers will be released "in the next couple of days."
"We saw a number of instances of irregularities, fraud, and intimidation not only in one or two districts but throughout the city during voting and also during the count," she said.
Gordon at the same time disapproved of the decision by the main opposition Armenian National Congress not to take up its seats in Yerevan's new city council. "Even imperfect election would be a better result if those who were asked to serve are able to do so," he said.