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U.S. Ambassador Lauds 'Useful' Armenian-American Community Tour

U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch has described her latest meetings with members of the Armenian-American community as "useful."

Yovanovitch made a similar tour a year ago, as her predecessors had done before. The diplomat's itinerary this year included Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

"I think it's just useful because there are so many Americans of Armenian origin who are doing interesting and important things in Armenia. So it's interesting for me to hear what they're doing," Yovanovitch told RFE/RL on October 17 after a 10-day tour of the four U.S. cities. "And I think, if I may say, it's interesting for them to hear what we're doing, because we're doing a lot in the various areas across the sectors and I think it's useful to have that exchange and useful to have face to face communication and try to build bridges with a very large part of the Armenian population in the world."

Yovanovitch said a wide range of issues had come up for discussion, including Armenians' long-standing desire for the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution recognizing the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide; the U.S. role in international mediation efforts to resolve the conflict over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh; Turkish-Armenian normalization; and advancing democracy and issues of the Armenian economy.

"Obviously I shared the U.S. position on those issues," Yovanovitch said. "I think the important thing is that, I think the Armenian American community is intensely interested in everything that is happening in Armenia as it progresses in its democratic transition, how things are going economically. And then, security issues are absolutely vital in a country with four borders, two of which are closed, and you know, what is Armenia doing and what is the U.S. doing to help."

The U.S. ambassador also responded to concerns voiced by some analysts in Yerevan who wonder why the most recent statement by the Minsk Group of Karabakh mediators referred to the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh by its Azeri name, Khankendi, rather than Stepanakert -- an accepted name it has always used.

Asked whether she was "aware of any policy change on this" or was "this reference a reflection of pressure from Baku," Yovanovitch said: "I am familiar with that statement and I think the way the Minsk Group co-chairs referred to the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh was Stepanakert-slash-Khankendi and that's not a change. The co-chairs have referred to the capital in that way before."

The ambassador said the question regarding the U.S. Senate putting on hold the White House's choice for ambassador to Azerbaijan, former top U.S. negotiator on Karabakh Matthew Bryza, was "a matter for the U.S. Senate."

But she added: "Matt Bryza enjoys the full confidence of the president and the secretary of state. He's got great background for this post and so obviously we hope that he will be confirmed. But again, it's a matter for the U.S. Senate."

Commenting on the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process that appears to have stalled despite the sides' signing of two protocols in October 2009 aimed at achieving normalization, Yovanovitch voiced some hope that Armenia and Turkey will "move forward" at some point.

"It is unimaginable to think that forever there will be a closed border between Turkey and Armenia," Yovanovitch said. "I think at some point the moment is going to be right and the U.S. stands ready to help both sides move forward. There are protocols, we hope that at some point the countries will want to ratify them and move forward in the normalization process."

"Right now we're very focused on trying to bring the peoples of the countries together -- in various confidence building measures, trying to do civil society exchanges," she said. "We think that's very important because it creates a larger space for communication, for mutual understanding and maybe helps politicians move forward as they grapple with some of these difficult issues."

The U.S. ambassador also described as a positive step that Turkish authorities eventually erected a cross on top of a recently renovated medieval Armenian church near Van, in Turkey, where the first service in nearly a century was allowed last month.

The service attracted hundreds of Armenian visitors, but many had refused to go to Van due to the failure of the Turkish authorities to erect the Christian symbol atop the Holy Cross Church in time for the September 19 service.

"I think that what we've seen is that the cross is now on top of the church, so that's a positive step. And I think we looked at the service as a positive step, as well. And I hope that there can be more of that, and hope that Armenians and Turks together can move forward, they're neighbors and it's important to try to, like I said, find a space for mutual understanding," she said. "And that's hard -- hard because of the history, hard in many ways, but I don't really see any other alternative. So people of good faith -- and I know some would say, how naive can she be to say that? but people of good faith need to come together and to try to create the conditions for that political process and for progress on the political side."

Yovanovitch also commented on Iranian-Armenian relations that are said to have been getting closer of late.

Asked whether Washington was at all concerned by those growing ties in light of the recent visit of Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani to Yerevan and his praise of Iran's "deepening relations with Armenia" and denouncing "U.S. policy in the region," Yovanovitch said that "Armenia's relationship with Iran is a bilateral one."

"Iran is one of Armenia's neighbors and over the years it's been an important neighbor because it's one of the two open borders for Armenia, so for reasons of commerce, for energy reasons, that's an important relationship. Armenia's relationship with Iran is a bilateral one. Clearly, the U.S. has concerns with regard to Iran's nuclear posture and so, that is something that we expect all member countries of the UN – including Armenia – to uphold, the UN Security Council resolutions and the sanctions," she said.