Interview with the US Ambassador to Armenia H. E. John Heffern
ARMENIA – US RELATIONS
- Mr. Ambassador, the relations between the Armenia and US - surely they are friendly, they develop well, but still they are far from the duly depth and closeness they should have - given to the historical junction of the US with Armenia, the events at the League of Nations…
- I’m very pleased to learn that you think so…
- Yes, I think so - but where lies the obstacle that prevents those relations from turning into something more profound, firm and strategic? Are the problems inside Armenia - with democracy, in political landscape, in judiciary, etc. or there are external factors like geopolitics?
- Well, what I can say – surely there are challenges. But the challenges are there and they are natural for the bilateral relations between any countries. In the agenda of our relations if to take the economy – there are sectors where the cooperation is booming like the IT sector. You know there are plenty of American companies interested in partnerships here, which arrive here and make joint ventures, joint projects and the cooperation flourishes in full scale.
Another successful sample is the energy sector. You know this sector of Armenian economy has long been dominated by just one partner. Now the deal of the “Vorotan” hydro-station diversifies the foreign presence in your energy sector. And by the way this deal and investment for almost 250 million dollars by many indicators exceeds all other investments that so far the US business had made in Armenia. The deal isn’t concluded yet, but the atmosphere in the ongoing negotiations is pretty favorable – so I’m optimistic about the outcome. Still of course, there are problems with the overall business environment in Armenia –the legal framework, the independence of judiciary, etc, that should be improved.
Moving to the political and diplomatic segment of US-Armenia relations – here are two main challenges - the relations with Turkey and the problem of Nagorno Karabakh. You know the US - including the very high levels – is closely engaged in the search of solutions to both problems. We would be happy already to have some achievements and solutions but the reality is that the work still goes on.
- Before moving to diplomacy may I turn to this mess called EEU? I’m not someone who perceives its essence or future, or what the Armenia’s engagement with it will be. I just remember, that first the President Sargsyan stated a wish to join the Customs Union, then kind of road-map was designed to afford the process, a year later some papers got signed about entering another union, still nothing is ratified even in Armenia - so a total mess. Still what interests me - may Armenia’s participation in that Putin initiative hinder or damage country’s economic ties with West and particularly with the US?
- I agree that there’s a lot of uncertainty around the EEU itself and the Armenia’s engagement with it. But whatever that engagement will be I do not think it may damage or prevent further increase of Armenia’s economic ties and cooperation with the West, with the EU or US.
I think the situation will rather be similar with one that we see between the Armenia and NATO. Armenia is a member of CSTO, but it never was an obstacle for engaging with NATO, developing pretty successful cooperation there and having firm involvement in many of its initiatives.
I anticipate almost the same picture to become characteristic for the economic field. Moreover that from the very beginning, since last September the Armenian authorities had stated and re-stated for numerous times that Armenia seeks and is wishful to develop the ties with the West. And this is not just wording or talks, your authorities actually take some steps, for example they liberated the air=space for flights, etc. So Armenia demonstrates the wish to move towards larger economic cooperation and convergence with the West. And respectively the West, the EU and the US always left the door open for Armenia.
For the moment its unknown what will be the Armenia’s duties before the EEU and where in particular it may impose restrictions on the trade and economic cooperation with the West, but actually besides that probable or possible spots the entire economic field seems to remain open for cooperation. So the EEU doesn’t pose any essential problem.
- Fine, then lets return to diplomacy and I wish to ask about the normalization process with Turkey, especially the opening of border as it seems to me the bottom of all problems. Frankly I don’t believe that Nagorno Karabakh is that important to anyone and especially to Mr. Aliev. Rather Mr. Aliev pursues the idea-fix of damaging Armenia and the NKR problem is the tool that brilliantly caters the goal. As long as the tool works and damages Armenia, hardly will Aliev give it up. So first the impact of the tool should be neutralized –the Armenian Turkish border should be opened.
- The border is in the core of whole complex of problems. And exactly taking into account what you have rightly argued and some other factors the US were very supportive in initiating the process and work hard over the normalization of relations between the Armenia and Turkey. When I arrived to Armenia three years ago and especially Ambassador Yovanovitch before me both of us were very excited about that process. Ambassador Yovanovitch herself was part of many arrangements that led to the signing the Protocols in Zurich in 2009, also Secretary Clinton highly appreciated and greatly contributed to the process. And everyone was very optimistic in 2009, but unfortunately until now the Protocols didn’t get ratified. Armenia has stated for numerous times that as soon as Turkey will ratify the documents the Armenia’s ratification will follow and there won’t be problems. But the Turkey’s ratification didn’t happen so long.
By the way one shouldn’t think that the establishment of relationship or the opening of sealed border is a kind of favor that Turkey does to Armenia. Absolutely not the case - you know the Eastern and the South-eastern regions of Turkey are pretty poor and underdeveloped, yet the opening of border with Armenia will generate the economic growth there. So the ratification and the implementation of the Protocols is a mutually beneficial development for both countries and even the broader South Caucasus region as it finally will afford to bridge the Europe and the Middle East.
Also this should be stated clearly - the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement process from its very beginning was about the establishment of relations without any preconditions. The Armenians have problems and demands to Turkey, the Turkey may have problems with Armenia, etc - so first there is need to establish the relations between the two countries, then move to discussion of problems and perhaps search of solutions.
THE BROADER NEAR EAST REGION
- Historically Armenia is part of Asia Minor, our presence in East Mediterranean dated for millenniums and the opening of border with Turkey will lead to broader re-engagement and the return of Armenia to its rightful position in the world as part of European and Near East communities. Given to Russia’s crazy behavior in Crimea – her fore post in Black Sea, one can’t exclude the craziness if Russia loses control over Armenia – the fore post in Caucasus and gateway to Near and Middle East. By the time Russia becomes weaker, accordingly more nervous and inadequate and thus greater problems she may cause.
- I agree, the process should move forward and better if with greater speed and results. But I wish to point out couple of details here. Of course the final goal is the ratification and implementation of protocols, that unfortunately hadn’t happened so long – but we, the Americans, also the EU, etc, worked with the civil societies, the business and artistic communities, the scholars and others from Armenia and Turkey, trying to get them closer and set kind of common agenda and dialogue between them.
Exactly several days ago we opened an IT conference in Gyumri. Almost 30 businessmen were invited from Turkey and participated in the event. With the Armenian counterparts they were discussing some business opportunities and cooperation perspectives. Frankly talking there is some move within the Armenian and Turkish societies themselves and between the two, that smoothes the people-to-people contacts and dialogue between the two nations. The Protocols are the diplomatic and official segment in the broader rapprochement process between the two nations. And here I may state the time wasn’t wasted in vain, there is a move. Still true it’s not sufficed as the overall arrangement is the realization of Protocols.
- Mr. Ambassador, sorry for this kind of question, but… Turkey fell into the focus of international attention on recent weeks because of the events in Kobani. Turkey’s greatest problem is the Kurdish problem, the dilemma they faced was rather tough – if allow the Kurdish peshmerga crossing through Turkey that could empower the PKK, if ban the crossing that could radicalize the Kurdish population inside Turkey leading to unrest, clashes and fatalities. However, after couple of weeks of resistance Turkey lastly opened the border for crossing of armed peshmerga fighters, by impression of many - under the pressure of the US.
- (The Ambassador smiled) OK, some people could get that kind of impression…
- Including myself. So if the Turkey obeys and opens the border for crossing of armed peshmerga, then why it wouldn’t obey and open the border with Armenia. Isn’t it the US pressure that is not tough enough?
- Lusine, it’s not like that. First of all, of course, the situation on Armenian-Turkish border doesn’t contain kind of crisis that we witnessed near the Kobani and none of us would wish that kind of crisis, so the actions naturally are different. But more importantly both Armenia and Turkey are sovereign states that make decisions themselves. We may underscore the gains of process for both sides, we may urge the parties to honor their commitments but ultimately the steps towards the realization of agreements should be undertaken by them. I may just assure once again that at all the levels, including the highest levels we talk to the sides and insist the importance of ratifying and further implementing the 2009 Zurich protocols. We work over that.
- Let’s hope there will be results, moreover that now we witness results in another decades long dispute around Iran. To me it’s the most favorable development impacting Armenia for the moment, so I wish to thank you cordially for the talk, for all your highly valuable replies and statements and end the interview with the optimistic note of normalization of relations between the Iran and the West. What can we expect for the near future?
- I think here we may be cautiously optimistic. All of us know that November 24th is set as the deadline for the “6+1” format negotiations around the Iran’s nuclear program. Again the issue is about honoring their own commitments, the world urges Iran to follow its commitments regulating the cooperation with the international atomic energy bodies. Achieving some agreements here on November 24th will hopefully lead to relaxation of sanctions put on Iran. Even if an agreement won’t be reached, there definitely will be signs where the process is moving.
From the viewpoint of Armenia surely lifting the sanctions from Iran will be a much favorable move for the Armenian economy. We value very much that despite it caused some cost to Armenian economy, Armenia honored and never broke the sanctions and restrictions imposed on Iran by the international community. So we’ll be happy to see the agreements reached with Iran, the sanctions lifted and the new opportunities for the Armenian economy turned open. No any country should depend on just one partner, just one route of communication, just one open border. Diversification of opportunities is highly important and we hope this will arrive for Armenia.
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