Remarks for Opening Ceremony of Harvard Black Sea Security Conference

Good morning. I would like to welcome Deputy Minister of Defense Nazaryan, Dr. Boghdasarian, General Kotanjian, Dr. Konoplyov, Mr. Mkrtchyan, excellencies and participants. I would especially like to welcome those of you here to Armenia, who may be making your first visit to this country. As some of you may know, I myself have only recently arrived here in Yerevan — about a month ago — and it has been a great pleasure for me to get to know Armenia, or Hayastan, as Armenians call their homeland. I hope that all of you visiting from abroad will also have the opportunity to spend a little time getting to know this wonderful country better while you are here, and I hope that you will find other opportunities to return to Armenia in the coming months and years. Armenia has a lot to offer the wider region, and I also believe that Armenia can benefit a great deal from broader and deeper partnerships with each of the countries that all of you represent.

I think it is quite auspicious that Armenia is hosting this 7th annual Black Sea Security Workshop this year, at the same time that Armenia assumes the chairmanship of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (or BSEC) Forum. If it wasnét clear before, the war between Russia and Georgia, has made it crystal clear that security and economic concerns are closely related in the Black Sea region, which is of such strategic importance, at the intersection point between Asia and Europe.

It is not my intention here to initiate a discussion about the nature of that conflict. However, I think we can all agree that the fact of those events has served as a powerful reminder to all of us about some of the strategic vulnerabilities that exist when we speak about security and economic concerns in the Black Sea region. For one, it reminds us – yet again — that the sealed borders between Armenia and Turkey, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan represent significant obstacles and strategic vulnerabilities for both Armenia and Azerbaijan — both of which rely heavily on Georgia as a transportation corridor to the Black Sea for the majority of their imports and exports. While I am sure that all of us in this room sincerely hope for peace, stability, and prosperity in Georgia, and harmonious relations between Georgia and Russia, we also have to realize that it is a risk for Armenia and Azerbaijan to depend on that prospect for their own economic well-being. It is clear that choices enhance both security and sovereignty.

So I am encouraged, as I stand here today, by the relatively better prospects that we see for possible rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. If it were to prove possible to heal these long-standing problems that have divided the South Caucasus it would transform the future of the Black Sea region. However, as Assistant Secretary Dan Fried said when he was here last week. “Possible does not mean inevitable.” Difficult issues remain and must be worked out; I do not minimize the difficulty. But, I also think that there is reason for cautious optimism that the leadership of both countries might be able to achieve progress in the near future.

We must all applaud President Serzh Sargsian for his bold leadership in inviting Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Yerevan September 6 for the World Cup football qualifying match. And it was equally courageous and praise-worthy of President Gul for accepting that invitation and coming to Armenian. This was a powerful symbolic gesture on both sides — people have compared it to the 1971 “ping pong diplomacy” that opened the door for political reconciliation between the United States and China in 1972, and I think there is some merit to that comparison.

In addition to the symbolic value, I think something else was accomplished. I have the impression that President Sargsian and President Gul, as well as Foreign Ministers Nalbandian and Babajan, found each other to be men of sincere good faith, with both sides genuinely interested in finding ways to overcome the issues which have divided Armenia and Turkey. It can only be constructive for these leaders to have had this opportunity to get to know each other better and to have a frank conversation about their intentions and aspirations for this region. It was an excellent step towards confidence-building, trust, and hopefully, eventual reconciliation.

We also see some room for optimism about the possibility of achieving progress between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minsk Group mediators have worked very hard with negotiators on both sides of this dispute since launching the Prague Process in 2004. These, too, are not easy negotiations, and important issues remain to be agreed. We have come close before, but there is cautious optimism that the patient work that has been done in the Minsk Group format over the past four years has narrowed differences between the sides, and puts a solution on the basis of the Basic Principles and Madrid Document within potential reach.

I think it is also relevant to mention that — notwithstanding all the public commentary about the Minsk Group — the United States, Russia, and France continue to work together in the Minsk Group format on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and that format remains the best chance for achieving a solution to that conflict. The Co-Chairs continue to facilitate the process.

For our part, the United States remains committed to supporting the mutual work of Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan to bridge the divides that now separate them, and eliminate potential sources of conflict while building regional prosperity and integration. If we can manage to resolve these regional disputes, it would open the door to an unimaginable new level of cooperation, confidence-building, and regional development.

I have dealt in these remarks on the Black Sea security issues which are closest to home here in Yerevan, the issues that most concern the eastern end of the Black Sea region and the perspective of the United States on those issues. I recognize that there are broader regional issues to discuss here as well, and I am pleased to see from the agenda that other distinguished experts will address those issues.

I hope that this conference is both interesting and edifying, and I look forward to talking with some of you on the margins of the conference — or at the reception tomorrow night which I am hosting in your honor. Thank you.