Ambassador’s Remarks on the U.S.-Armenian Relationship: The Next Twenty Years (as prepared)

John A. Heffern, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia
April 2, 2012
Hrazdan Hotel
Yerevan, Armenia


Ambassador Heffern delivers a speech on the U.S.-Armenian Relationship at the Hrazdan Hotel on April 2.
Ambassador Heffern delivers a speech on the U.S.-Armenian Relationship at the Hrazdan Hotel on April 2.

Thanks to the Hrazdan Hotel for hosting us here today to talk about U.S.-Armenian relations.  We chose this location for a specific reason.  Twenty years ago, in February 1992, the United States opened its first Embassy in four rooms up on the eighth floor of this very building.  My predecessor in those early years — Tom Price — remembers all too well the number of floors in the hotel.  Electricity problems at the time caused him to get stuck in the elevator one day, convincing him to walk up 8 flights of stairs to the office every day.  Obviously, we are in much better shape at Embassy Yerevan, these days.

With our recognition of the Republic of Armenia and the establishment of this 8th-floor embassy, we launched our formal bilateral relationship.  Many Americans, though, felt an emotional connection to Armenia several years earlier.  The December 1988 Spitak earthquake brought into American homes some heart-rending images of people in need.  Every Armenian that I have talked to about this tragedy remembers exactly where he or she was when the earthquake struck.  Many of us knew little about Armenia back then.  Through that tragedy, though, we learned a lot about the strength and resilience of the Armenian people.  In many ways, that tragedy renewed a one-hundred year old bond between our people founded on a common sense of humanity.  Later this year, we will honor Clara Barton, the American Red Cross and American missionaries for their humanitarian work here more than one hundred years ago.

My remarks today focus on three key points:

— The United States wants to help Armenia in its quest to become a prosperous, democratic, Western nation;

— We do this by building partnerships with Armenians who share our values — universal values of separation of powers, freedom of speech, rule of law; and,

— We believe in the power to bring change — with optimism and a bit of impatience — and we hope Armenians do too.

Our relationship has come a long way since the embassy opened.  The U.S. is trying to help Armenia in its transition from a command economy and a closed political system in those early years to a more open system that expands opportunities for all.  Since Armenia’s independence, the United States Government has invested two billion dollars in assistance here.  We help where we can in non-monetary ways to promote regional peace and integration and to expand our partnership.

We’ve had some successes.  But, in every case, one thing has always been clear: despite our strength as a nation and what sounds like a lot of resources, we can accomplish nothing here alone.    Wherever we’ve had success, the formula has been the same.  We’ve been able to partner with motivated, creative and talented Armenians with whom we share core values, and who are committed to building a modern, progressive Armenia.  Building on our prior humanitarian responses, our goal now is to bolster the efforts of partners who share those values.

Now, I’ve mentioned “partnership” and “shared values” several times.  They’re easy terms to throw around, but they are also critically important concepts to consider as we think about the U.S.-Armenia relationship.  As we contemplate the next 20 years, the extent to which we have partners here who share our values will be the most important determinant of our success.  Shared values are the bedrock of true partnership.  Let me repeat that:  Shared values are the bedrock of true partnership.

So, how strong is this bilateral foundation?  Do we have a solid basis upon which to build that relationship?  A sense of shared humanity bound us together after the earthquake over 20 years ago, but what values will bind us to one another for the more complex challenges ahead?

In his 20th Anniversary speech to the Republican Party, President Sargsian said that Armenia must commit to the (1) “persistent adaptation of European standards into all areas of our political, social and economic lives… with no exemptions or reservations.”  In February, the President repeated that these values were part of the Armenian identity, and that Armenia was undertaking reforms based on these values.

European standards, European values are now universal – universal standards and values. I welcome the notion that Armenia is building its future upon the foundation of European values, just as we did.  America’s democratic experiment these past 236 years has grown from ideas and values with strong European roots — separation of power, checks and balances, freedom of speech, press, and assembly, a constitutional system, and a commitment to the rule of law.

These same values are the foundation upon which to build the U.S.-Armenia relationship over the next twenty years.  If we can agree that our relationship is based on a common commitment to these core principles of democracy and free markets, then we have a real basis for meaningful, productive cooperation.

In the U.S., we have struggled long and hard to translate these values into reality – experience that could help inform and support Armenia’s efforts here.  Take, for example, this critical insight from French philosopher Montesquieu: (2) “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” Our founding fathers’ embrace of that insight structured our system of checks and balances that keep our republic healthy.  We have fought to maintain separation of power between our branches of government, checks and balances to guard against abuse, and accountability of officials to the people.  We invest great hope in our political figures, but we have had the realism to structure our government to guard against the worst.

Here in Armenia, these principles underpin U.S. efforts to help establish democratic processes and institutions.  That is why we support strengthening the capacity and independence of the legislative branch to balance executive power.  These principles drive our interest in seeing the new Ethics Commission become a meaningful check on officials using political position to advance their financial interests, i.e., checks on conflicts of interest.  They guide our advocacy for an independent judiciary that is not beholden to executive or private pressure.  And with elections coming up, they underlie our support for protection against electoral fraud.

In the U.S., our unequivocal support for free speech reflects the sentiment of English political theorist John Stuart Mill:  (3) “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Here in Armenia, that sentiment translates into our advocacy for peaceful assembly, for protection of journalists, for judicious use of libel and libel fines, and for television access for both government supporters and critics.  A level playing field and media access for all viewpoints are critical to the upcoming elections.

In the U.S., our commitment to the rule of law reflects the wisdom of the Roman statesman Cicero, (4) “We are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free.”

Here in Armenia, to put this value into practice, we advocate for protection of property rights, for a predictable and transparent application of tax and customs laws free from outside interference, and transparent, fair legal proceedings.

In all these endeavors, success is only possible where like-minded local partners — in civil society, the private sector, and government — take the lead to incorporate these core standards into all areas of Armenia’s political, social and economic lives.  With such partners, there is real hope that we can accomplish much together.

Of course, not everyone in Armenia embraces these values.  There are those who believe in “exemptions” (usually for themselves) or have “reservations,” and some of them have the power to block change.

It won’t surprise you to hear that many Armenians with whom I’ve spoken express doubt that meaningful change is possible.  They argue that members of the elite have fixed the game to their advantage and are powerful enough to ensure that reform will not threaten their interests.  From this view, Armenia isn’t on a steady, evolutionary path toward free market prosperity and democracy.  Instead, these Armenians fear that reform in their country has stalled and that, as a result, real opportunity — whether political or economic — is reserved for the few.  This model, they warn, will lead to incremental reforms that are at best marginal, and at worst counterproductive by giving the false illusion of progress.

I think it is important to take this perspective seriously, in part because many Armenians do.  This pessimism, though, creates its own problems, which lead to serious challenges for Armenia’s development, e.g., through emigration.  The desire of some Armenians to leave their country shows that too many feel shut out of opportunity here at home.

I do not, however, personally share this pessimism and apathy about the prospects for change and reform.   That’s just not who I am.  I’m an optimist.  Maybe to an extent, that’s because I’m an American.  We’re an optimistic bunch by and large.  Like many Americans, I believe in the power of individuals to shape history.  A great quote from American anthropologist Margaret Mead typifies this belief: (5) “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I know there are brave, patriotic, committed Armenians with the power to change their world.  Some of them have official titles.  Some work for NGOs or universities or businesses.  Some may be sitting right here in this room.  To the extent that we, the United States, can use our resources to help their cause, we will.

I understand the concern that incremental change isn’t enough.   I understand that many Armenians are impatient, and feel that the pace of change is too slow.  I get that.  Maybe that too is part of being an American.  We’re an impatient bunch as well.  President Obama often quotes civil rights activist, Martin Luther King: (6) “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”  The fierce urgency of now — it’s a powerful, compelling phrase.  We should all feel that fierce urgency.  Some impatience is a good thing, especially if it can be channeled into a force for positive change.

But impatience can also be debilitating if it slides into apathy and cynicism.  Those who express frustration that change is too slow, often follow with the statement, “They know what they need to do,” where “they” are the authorities or those in power.  According to this view, “they”– the bosses, the leaders — have the whole burden.  “They” just need to display the political will.

Political will is important, yes.  But political structures cannot be built on the assumption that those with power will do the right thing.  It’s great when they do.  We call that leadership.  But building a sustainable, sound democracy rooted in these time-tested values requires sweat and struggle to construct accountability mechanisms and checks and balances to ensure that government serves the people, and not itself.

Consider the upcoming elections.  I understand that there is serious skepticism.  In a recent poll of 1,500 Armenians conducted by the National Democratic Institute, only 12% said they expected the next elections to be free and fair.  Twelve percent.  Now, we don’t need today to assess whether those doubts are well founded, but I do want to ask how people who harbor such doubts should respond.  Should they leave everything to “the authorities?” Or even worse, should they give up on the possibility of change?  For example, some have preemptively declared the May elections fraudulent, calling now for protests the day after the polls.

But those who want to build democracy in Armenia can’t stop with statements about what “they” should do.  Instead, Armenians should do their part to build institutional networks and coalitions to make their voices heard and to establish and utilize mechanisms that deter fraud and hold government accountable.  It’s those institutions, those mechanisms, which endure.  They are the bricks and mortar of democracy.

It is hard work establishing such structures.  But we applaud those courageous, committed Armenians – both inside and outside of government – who put in the hard work to build and strengthen sustainable democratic structures, and we are eager to partner with them where we can.

Before closing, let me repeat my three key points:

— The United States wants to help Armenia in its quest to become a prosperous, democratic, Western nation;

— We do this by building partnerships with Armenians who share our values – those universal values: (Remember:  Shared values are the bedrock of true partnership.)  and,

— We believe in the power to bring change and we hope Armenians do too.

For those of you here today, first thank you for coming.  But I also want to give you a homework assignment.  I’d ask that you delve a little more deeply into these European values that we discussed here today.  Study European history, U.S. history, and study your own.  Think about your values, and where they intersect with ours.  My hope is that many of you will find that we have much in common, that we want the same things for Armenia.

These next twenty years – they belong to you.  I hope some of you, or all of you will commit yourselves to the difficult work of building a prosperous, liberal democracy here in Armenia, and that you will look to us as a partner and a friend.