by John Hughes
The current United States Ambassador to Armenia, Marie Yovanovitch, assumed her post last August on the brink of war in the region (Georgia), and at the first sign of thaw in Armenia-Turkish relations in early September.
She arrived, too, as her own nation was reeling in financial crisis and speculation of whether foreign aid—for which Armenia has been a prime recipient—could survive domestic need.
Yovanovitch began her mission in a spotlight not of her making and perhaps not to her liking—brought on by there being no US ambassador in Armenia since John Evans was recalled two years earlier because he violated State Department policy by calling the Armenian Genocide, "genocide." (United States diplomats are expected to use phrases such as "tragedy" in describing the 1915-23 massacres but are forbidden to call it "genocide.")
She comes to Armenia from the Kyrgyz Republic where she was ambassador 2005-2008. She also served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Ukraine, 2001-2004.
Befitting a diplomat whose very purpose is to represent her government's positions, without personal commentary or evidence of contradiction, Yovanovitch is deliberate when speaking for the record. She agreed to an hour with AGBU, also requesting (though not demanding) that questions be submitted beforehand.
On the mandate of her mission and whether it changes under the Obama administration.
(The mission encompasses—as it historically has—three main concerns: economic development; good governance; regional stability.)
"Every president makes his, and in the future perhaps her, mark on foreign policy just as they do domestically... .Looking back over the past 18 years, whether it has been a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, at least in my analysis I think there has been more continuity than change, when it comes to how the US looks at the Caucasus and at Armenia, specifically in terms of wanting to assist with regional stability and security ... That's a long-term process, as are the internal reform processes, whether on the economic or political side. These aren't things that happen overnight, so you need to stick with it."
On Russia's influence over Armenia and whether the US is concerned over Russian dominance of Armenia.
"Russia has always played an important role in this region and certainly in Armenia, whether you look back 100 years, 150 years, or whether you look at the Soviet years ... and certainly the more modern period. That is something that is going to continue because Russia is obviously a close neighbor and has a lot to offer to Armenia, just as Armenia has a lot to offer Russia, whether economically and in terms of sending workers to Russia. There are many ways that the two countries can enrich each other."
Does the intensified reliance of Armenia on Russia have any influence on US-Armenia relations?
"This is a difficult period for every country in the world —it certainly is for the United States—it's a tough time for Russia as well, and I think it's going to be a very challenging year for Armenia as well because of the general financial crisis... . Armenia has requested and has received a loan from Russia. Armenia has also reached out to the World Bank, to IMF ... Over the years the US has provided—not loans—but out-right grants of approximately $2 billion over the past 18 years, and we will be looking at ways also to see how we will continue to support Armenia during this period. It's a very challenging period for every country."
On whether Armenia has made democratic progress since March 1, 2008.
"It is an issue that continues to be an important one in the political development of the country. There have been some positive signs: the establishment of the ad hoc commission to look into what happened on March 1st and the later establishment of the fact-finding group which includes the various elements of the opposition—which we think is positive, that members of different groups are sitting down together to try to take a hard and objective look at what really happened. We see that as really positive... . It appears that Armenia is going to move forward and take a look at amending two articles of its criminal code, which could have an important effect on the ongoing trials, and also the political situation in Armenia."
Is there concern about how the trial of March 1 "political prisoners" is being conducted?
"When we've looked at some of the other trials connected with the March 1 events, we had some questions. There seemed to be an over-reliance on the use of police testimony. Sometimes when witnesses recanted, the first testimony nonetheless was used to incriminate and find some of the accused guilty. There also seemed to be a question that some of the sentences were not in proportion to the crime. So there are some concerns there. It's something that we are in dialogue with the government about."
What is the next step for Armenia to take to prove that it is following the path that the United States wishes to see it take in democratic development?
"Democracy is always an evolving institution and continues to evolve in the United States. And the same can be said for other countries and certainly for countries that are transitional. While there is a democratic ideal, democracies are not the same around the world – there is the British model, the French model, the Canadian model ... I firmly believe that one day there will be an Armenian model. Every country has its own traditions and customs and history and somehow all those things need to be taken into account as well. We certainly wish the very best for Armenia and hope that Armenia will develop into a vibrant democracy with freedom of the press, the right to freedom of assembly and all the rights and responsibilities that we in the US take for granted. But it's going to be its own Armenian model and that's the way it should be. What we are trying to do is support Armenians' own desire to move forward in a way consistent with their national tradition."
The status of Millennium Challenge Account.
(The MCA focuses on three primary facets of development: building canals, building roads, and training farmers. Following last year's reports of election fraud, and subsequent violence, funds were frozen, pending review of Armenia's future performance.)
"The training (of farmers) continues, building canals continues and, by all accounts, is very successful. As a result of our concerns with what happened on March 1st and its aftermath, the Millennium Challenge Corporation Board decided to withhold some of the funding for the roads. The Armenian government decided to move forward and fund those roads itself. So building of those roads is continuing with Armenian government funds. The Board takes a look (every quarter) at how Armenia (as well as other countries) is progressing not only in terms of the project, but also for Armenia—(whether) Armenia is meeting its obligations—because it's a conditional program. I very much hope that the amendments to the criminal code can move forward—that (could) have a very positive effect."
Do you see (US-sponsored) programs that now exist in Armenia that may have to be cut because of the US economic crisis?
"Armenia has a lot of friends in the United States—many of them are readers of this magazine—and has a lot of friends in the administration ... Clearly the United States is experiencing some really, really serious financial and economic problems. It's not clear what's going to happen with our budget and I don't think it's probably going to be clear perhaps for a while. Certainly it's my job as Ambassador to Armenia to keep on reminding Washington why it's important to have a robust financial assistance for Armenia."
Do you feel any undue pressure as a result of the spotlight you had to face with the history approaching your appointment?
"I hope that at the end of the day I'll be judged on my accomplishments. I actually have found that—perhaps because there has been a two-year gap between ambassadors—that my reception here has been really good. Maybe that would have happened anyway, because the Armenian people are a warm people. But I have to say that I have been really pleased ..."