Ambassador Heffern’s speech at AUA (As prepared)

Ambassador Heffern’s speech at AUA (As prepared)
Ambassador Heffern’s speech at AUA (As prepared)

Thank you, it’s great to be at the American University of Armenia to talk about U.S.-Armenia relations.

Twentieth Anniversary

February 2012 was a very important month for us.  It was the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Embassy here in Yerevan.  We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of our partnership with Armenia.  Bilateral relations are strong.  President Obama and President Sargsyan have met several times.  Secretary Clinton was here in 2010, which was the first Secretary of State visit to Armenia in 18 years.  So we are proud that our bilateral contacts at the highest level are as strong as they have ever been, maybe stronger. Our partnership with Armenia is important.  It is strong.  But we have to remember that shared values are the bedrock of true partnership, so our goal is to build partnership through shared values.

U.S. Policy Goals

Let me set out our goals in three simple points:  we want to help Armenia succeed as a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous country.  Our first goal is very simple – help Armenia succeed.  Second, we want to give Armenia options.  No country can afford to be focused solely on one partner or one region or one border. All countries need options and we want to help Armenia have more options. And, finally, we want to keep Armenia focused on its trans-Atlantic partners.  So these are our overarching goals:

  • Help Armenia succeed as a free, independent, democratic, prosperous country.
  • Give Armenia options.  And,
  • Keep Armenia focused on the U.S., NATO, Europe and the EU.

More specifically, we have three policy priorities — regional, political, and economic – which overlap, link and reinforce all three overall goals.

Regional Reconciliation — Turkey

We want to help Armenia break down its regional isolation. The first part of that effort is Turkey and the bilateral Protocols.  We strongly support the Protocols.  We welcome the courage of Presidents Sargsyan and Gul for having agreed to the Protocols in 2009. The Protocols are unconditional; they are not linked to any other issue and they should be ratified and implemented on that basis. We urge Ankara to ratify the Protocols, implement the Protocols on an unconditional basis as they were signed.  As Secretary Clinton said when she was here, “The ball is in Ankara’s court.” Armenia has done the right thing on the Protocols; it has not walked away from them even though Turkey has attempted to tie the protocols to progress on Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inconsistent with their intent.

We’re trying hard to get Turkey to do the right thing on the Protocols, which is the big goal in terms of getting that border open, establishing bilateral ties, diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey.   In the meantime, we are pursuing a couple of other interim approaches.

First, are meaningful economic measures. There are some meaningful steps that Turkey could take, short of ratifying the protocols, which would be a good thing — good for Armenia, good for Turkey, and good for the region.  One is to open the railroad, the Gyumri –Kars railroad, which would help people of both Armenia and eastern Turkey.  Second, a fiber optic cable could be connected between the two countries.  And finally, electricity swaps would help both countries.

The final basket of steps involves cross-border exchanges, which amount to reconciliation – in some ways one person at a time.  By that I mean Track II exchanges, cross-border activities, students going back and forth, teachers going back and forth, maybe legislators, business people, think tankers, all manner of activities between the two countries to try to promote reconciliation. But this effort is not a substitute for the Protocols; the goal is still to get the Protocols ratified and implemented. That’s the Turkey piece of the regional effort.


The second part is Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group process.  The U.S. is one of three Co-Chairs of the Minsk Process.  While substantive progress has been slow, the process itself is important. Keeping the two parties at the table is an important part of it. But it’s not enough.  Armenia has endorsed publicly the last draft of what are called the Basic Principles and has taken constructive positions on several other elements of the Minsk Process.

In the meantime, we are trying to align with the Minsk Group, with the negotiation over the Basic Principles, confidence building measures between the two countries. There are military confidence building measures and humanitarian confidence building measures.  On the military side, we are trying to get the two parties to agree to withdraw snipers, which would do much to reduce tension and build confidence. At the very least there should be a mechanism to investigate violations of the cease-fire. Again we have not been able to get the two parties to agree to these two steps.

On the humanitarian side, we are trying to find people-to-people opportunities, again to build reconciliation one person at a time.  We are pursuing a couple of ideas. There are two villages, one village in Armenia, which used to be heavily Azeri populated, and one in Azerbaijan, which used to be heavily Armenian populated.  There are cultural artifacts and cemeteries in those villages, concerning which the two villages decided on their own to make a deal.  One village promised to protect the artifacts of the other, and vice versa.  What a wonderful story!  There has been a moving documentary made about it.  And so, can we build on the spirit of these two villages in some way? This village-to-village bottom-up reconciliation is what we are looking for in the context of the Minsk Process, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

So that’s the regional piece: the reconciliation with Turkey via the Protocols, the Minsk Process to search for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. That’s the regional part of our policy goals here.

Political — Elections

The second piece is political, specifically national elections. There were some important political steps last year. The President released the detainees of 2008 and then opened the square to demonstrations by the opposition.  The security forces and the police have responded appropriately and allowed freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, peaceful demonstrations by independent and opposition forces. That’s a good thing. Our election goal, which we are promoting with the government, with the coalition parties, opposition parties, civil society and the press, is to make these elections free, fair and credible, in other words to meet international standards.

Specifically, what do I mean?  There needs to be a “level playing field” for all competing parties, candidates, and points of view.  The deck should not be stacked against the opposition.  Political competition is good; it will help Armenia’s democracy mature.  We hope the opposition will be strong and credible in the elections, not because we care who wins, we don’t care who wins.  We care about the playing field, we are not supporting any of the players.  The U.S. and the West support the electoral process and we want the process to meet international standards because mature democracies make the best partners.  Achieving this goal would help all the parties, help all the people, help the whole system become more free, fair, transparent and responsive to the aspirations of the Armenian people.

So our message when I meet with the government officials is the need for a level playing field, which means access to the media, no misuse of administrative resources, no vote buying.  Armenia’s electoral law is a pretty good one, big improvements were made in the election law last year. The question now is will it be fully, transparently, and fairly implemented.

When we meet the opposition, civil society and the press, we’ve got messages for them as well. Our message to them is use the tools that are available to them.  The new election law offers new tools to the opposition, to civil society and to independent forces here.  These independent forces should push government, push police, and push the authorities to implement the law freely, fairly and transparently.

This effort requires public awareness in order to build trust in the electoral process. We are working with the legislature, with the Central Election Commission, law enforcement agencies, the Prosecutor General, many other offices.  We are urging them to spread public awareness of the positive changes in the new electoral law in order to build trust. From polling data that we have seen that 78 per cent of the Armenian public – a huge number — do not expect these upcoming elections to be free and fair. And so our message to the government is that they have at the very least a public awareness issue.  They have done some work on the election law, some work on implementation as well.  But they have not done enough yet on the public awareness piece and so we are pushing and promoting that effort.

We did regional, we did political, and now the economic piece.

Economic Relations

U.S. trade and investment in Armenia is really a pittance.  There is more bilateral trade between Armenia and Turkey, with the border closed, than there is between Armenia and the United States. There are a million and a half Armenians in the United States, a huge Diaspora, all sorts of resources, very successful Americans , very entrepreneurial. Why are our trade and investments so limited?

When I meet with government officials, they push me on this. They say, “Why can’t you get more trade here?” “Why can’t you attract more investors?” Indeed this is one of my jobs, to deepen the economic relationship, to help create job opportunities in both countries.  My response is that it would be easier to attract investment here if the business climate were better. If the courts were more independent, if it was more clear that contracts would be honored.  It would help if taxes and customs were transparent, if companies knew what their tax or customs bills were going to be.

There are still problems in the business climate here.

And so my response is, one, the U.S. investment that is here is high quality investment.  Although our investment numbers are not very big, the American investment that’s here is what I call transformative. It’s in high tech areas, information technologies.  A lot of important and successful U.S. high tech companies are here.  U.S. Industry is doing something important in Armenia, especially in the high tech area.  Our investment is helping to transform the Armenian economy and society into a 21st century society, promoting competition and entrepreneurship, and creating a level economic playing field for our mutual benefit. The IT sector is the fastest growing sector here. It has 20 per cent annual growth in revenues and 13 per cent annual growth in employment, by far the most successful sector here.

It would help me promote trade and investment here if there were a better business climate, more competition, transparency in terms of rules, taxes, customs, rule of law, an independent judiciary.  Even the Diaspora, when I talk to Armenian-Americans, who have resources, who are so successful outside of Armenia, and committed to Armenia, I say to them, “Why don’t you trade more, do more economically in Armenia?”  They reply that it’s easier to contribute to a monument or a church than invest in a business, because to invest in a business, one has to follow U.S. law, international standards and international values.  It is a sad situation when even the Armenian Diaspora is reluctant to invest here.


So those are our three policy goals:  to help Armenia succeed; to give Armenia options; and, to keep Armenia focused on its trans-Atlantic relations.  We try to accomplish these goals by:

  • Helping to break down the regional isolation,
  • Promoting free and fair elections, and,
  • Deepening our economic ties through an improved business climate.

Our partnership with Armenia is important.  It is strong.  All these efforts, all the goals have at their core building partnership through shared values.

Center of Excellence

Let me close on one specific concept that we are pursuing.  We are working with those sectors of Armenian society that are the most productive, where Armenia has some real comparative advantage in the region. Information technology is one area where Armenia excels and I think we can find partners there for increased cooperation. Health as well, there are a number of health organizations here that are really world class and we are looking for ways to work better with them. I’m thinking music and sports might be other areas as well.

Again, the idea is to identify those sectors where Armenia has comparative advantage in the region – IT, health, maybe music or sports – and to develop a center of excellence.  The United States, would then provide some technical support, maybe some resources, to give a boost to a really strong partner that has an existing successful program where Armenia demonstrates some regional comparative advantage. And develop this program or institution into a center of excellence, a regional center of excellence.  Such a center would be good for the Armenian people, good for bilateral relations, and, if we are successful and we do it right, maybe it could become a regional magnet. Maybe this health unit or IT training center, would encourage Georgians, Turks or even Azerbaijanis to cross that border to come to Armenia to get that unique care or expertise.

So we are working with Armenian partners to develop these regional centers of excellence which could, if we are successful, become a bit of a regional magnet, to bring Turks and Azerbaijanis across these closed borders and again create some movement or momentum toward opening those borders which as I have said at the beginning is one of our top three goals here in Armenia.

Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.