On Mon., Dec. 17, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern spoke to an audience of more than 150 people at the New York headquarters of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern).
Heffern detailed America’s goals, programs, and incentives in Armenia during his town hall-style meeting organized by the Diocese and the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), with the participation of a number of Armenian organizations (see below). The gathering was one of several appearances by the ambassador before Armenian-American audiences scheduled for his current visit to the United States.
Prior to the public gathering, Heffern was welcomed in a reception in the formal reception room (tahlij) of the Diocesan Center by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the Diocesan Primate; Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, the Diocese’s ecumenical director; the Diocesan Council; and members of the Fund for Armenian Relief board of directors.
In a cordial atmosphere, the group of Diocesan leaders had an opportunity to offer their greetings to the ambassador and his staff, and to exchange thoughts on his mission in Armenia, and the Diocese’s own efforts in the homeland, through FAR.
Later in the evening, during the large gathering in the Diocesan Center’s Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium, FAR chairman Randy Sapah-Gulian introduced Heffern to the crowd; the ambassador greeted the audience with the traditional Christmas refrain in Armenian. This gracious expression elicited enthusiastic applause from the audience, after which Ambassador Heffern revealed that he had been studying the Armenian language with his wife, Libby.
Delving into the topic of the U.S. partnership with Armenia, he related that U.S.-Armenia relations began 20 years ago, and that the “relationship and dialogue is good.” He pointed out that President Barack Obama has met with Armenian President Serge Sarkisian several times, and that for the first time in 18 years, a U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had traveled to Armenia (in 2010 and 2012).
Using video clips, he paid tribute to medical and developmental programs in Armenia, run by Armenian-American organizations and individuals, which are transforming the landscape of the country.
Democratic, prosperous, secure
In enumerating the United States’ goals in Armenia, he said, “What we are trying to do is to help Armenia succeed as a democratic, prosperous, and secure country,” as well as to “pull” Armenia to the West. “We are doing this by internal change: keeping the private sector separate from politics,” he said, “as well as helping key people and policymakers adopt laws and regulations consistent with democratic ethics.” He listed “free and fair democratic elections, with all candidates having access to the media, along with healthy political competition,” as among the U.S. goals.
On Armenia’s economic side, he prescribed more trade and investment. “We want to help transform Armenia in the 21st century economically, by taking advantage of the Armenian people’s creative talents.” Those resources, he said, are considered by the United States to be of “high quality.” As an example, he cited the IT Center in which “all big U.S. companies are participating.” He also spoke about American agricultural projects in Armenia. However, on the negative side, he noted a lack of investment in Armenia by American businesses, which illustrates, he said, Armenia’s need for “more transparency on tax and customs procedures, as well as more independent courts and the rule of law.”
Heffern pointed to signs of progress, citing the World Bank’s decision to move Armenia up 18 points in international rankings, putting it in second place among the former Soviet Union republics. He praised Armenia-NATO cooperation, especially the sending of Armenian troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan. However, he noted that “defense reform” is necessary, with the hazing of troops in the military being a serious problem.
Calling Armenia a small country with borders closed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, and problematic relations with Georgia, he pointed out that the only border country that is a “lifeline” to Armenia is Iran, which he termed a “risky” situation. Advocating open borders with Turkey—a position he acknowledged was “hard,” and even “harder” in the case of Azerbaijan—he said Armenia needs to be “reintegrated in the region.”
“Turkey closed the border; the ball is in their court,” he said. He also called for an open Kars railroad, and cross-border activity between Turkish and Armenian business people.
On the issue of genocide recognition, he said that Obama’s statement had acknowledged that “one and a-half million Armenians had been marched to their death.” He said that any elaboration would have to be issued by the U.S. State Department before he could address it further in his capacity as U.S. ambassador.
Heffern concluded his talk by calling for the “planting of seeds of change” through partnerships—identifying Armenians who share American values. “We find them through exchange programs, and working with the youth and other people who share our values.”
Partnership and prayer
In the question-and-answer period led by FAR Executive Director Garnik Nanagoulian, Heffern addressed several issues, including the Karabagh question, on which he said it is crucial for the two sides involved to reach a peaceful resolution. “The alternative is that the big powers will push their own solution, which is not preferable.”
As for the most promising business sectors in Armenia, the ambassador listed IT, hotels, tourism, pharmaceuticals, dried fruit products, and wine.
Thanking the ambassador and his wife, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian paid tribute to the great efforts that Armenian-Americans have made to support a free Armenian homeland. He recalled the close relationship the Diocese has had with all the U.S. ambassadors to Armenia, from the very first one, Ambassador Harry Gilmore. And he thanked America for the support it has shown. “From the first days of Armenia’s independence, the U.S. has stood by our people as an inspiration, a beacon of hope, and a partner,” he said. “The Diocese has played a special role in this partnership, working through the Fund for Armenian Relief and with Holy Etchmiadzin to help develop Armenia.”
“The partnership between Armenia and America was forged out of the tragedy of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia,” the Primate recalled; and reflecting on the tragedy which had occurred a few days earlier in Newtown, Conn., he led a prayer for the children and adults who were killed.
With a nod to the message of Christmas, the Primate closed by saying, “We pray for Peace on Earth, and Good Will to All People.”
Organizations participating in realizing the town hall meeting included the Armenian General Benevolent Union, Knights and Daughters of Vartan, Armenian Students’ Association, Armenian Assembly of America, Tekeyan Cultural Association, Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, Constantinople Armenian Relief Society, Esayan-Getronagan Alumni, Tibrevank Alumni, and Armenian-American Support and Educational Center.