Ambassador Heffern Visits Watertown during US Tour 


By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Ambassador John A. Heffern made a stop at the Keljik Hall of St. James Armenian Church on Thursday, December 13, as part of his tour of US communities here, in New York and in California. (His office had chosen to make two stops in Boston, at St. James on Thursday and at St. Stephen’s Armenian Church on Friday.)

“I’m here to listen. I’m here to learn. I’ll take back what I learn from you tonight,” he said.

Heffern, setting a different tone than his predecessor, Marie Yovanovitch, has tried to take part in the community life in Yerevan with his wife, Libby.

He was introduced by Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian.

He mostly steered clear of harsh language and tricky areas of US policies. Instead, he praised the relationship between Armenia and the US and said he sees his task as trying to “advance this partnership,”calling relations the best they have ever been.

He also discussed areas in which the embassy and the diaspora can collaborate, with good results.

“We thank the Armenian people for the warm welcome,” they have extended to the couple, he said. During his talk, he stressed the areas in which the US can help Armenia. One of those areas of

partnership was working with diasporan groups that are trying to do work in Armenia, such as the Armenian EyeCare Project.

He stressed the goals of the US for Armenia, including “help Armenia succeed as a democratic, prosperous and secure country,” improve the political climate and improve the business climate. He added that US involvement in the economy could be much more, but that already, it is helping it transform into a knowledge-based economy, stressing Armenian’s excellence in science, engineering and telecommunication.

He added, “It is really important that they hear from investors that an improvement business climate” will help bring in more involvement and dollars from the diaspora.

He noted that the May elections were more transparent than previous ones, providing opposition candidates access to the media as well as observers reporting little-to-no ballot-box-stuffing incidents witnessed by.

Still, he said, the bigger parties can bribe voters to cast their ballots for them.

Again and again, he went back to the theme of Armenia’s orientation, suggesting that it come closer to the West. He praised the fact that “Armenia is absolutely committed to NATO” not withstanding its dependence on Russia. He singled out Armenian troops’ participation in peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan.

Heffern lamented that Iran provided Armenia’s only open border, as Turkey and Azerbaijan’s borders have been closed since its independence, and the one with Georgia is sporadic. “It is not good for Armenia to be so dependent on one border only,” he said.

He said that the US position regarding Iran was shared by European leaders and the United Nations, as well as Russia and China now, and that such economic force as the economic stranglehold is necessary to stop that nation’s nuclear program. As for Armenia, he said, it would do well to “honor the sanctions.”

Heffern said that Armenia’s reconciliation with Turkey is of paramount importance to Washington, as is the “peaceful resolution” of

the Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh) impasse, noting that the US is a part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk subgroup tasked with settling the issue.

As for Azerbaijan’s relations with Armenia, he added that “we’re not referees to give them [the Azeris] a red card” if they issue statements contrary to the intent to the peaceful settlement of the issue between the two nations. He did note, however, that the White House in a statement had “denounced” Baku’s bellicose statements.

Regarding Turkey, he quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had said earlier this year, “The ball is in Turkey’s court.” He added, “Armenia did not closer the border, Turkey did. Getting that border open would be hugely helpful.”

He spoke at length about the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and US Department of Agriculture programs in collaboration with organizations on the ground in Armenia.

He also showed a still of a flash mob video in Yerevan, in which he had taken part, calling it his “most fun experience in 30 years” of service.

The floor was opened to questions, and many were ones that have been in the diaspora for long, including when will the US recognize the Armenian Genocide, why Turkey is not prodded to lift its blockade, as well as why Nagorno Karabagh is not recognized as a de facto state by the West, while Kosovo and now rebels in Syria have merited that recognition.

The two concepts at odds regarding Artsakh are the issues of self-determination versus territorial integrity, but that no two such cases are the same, Heffern said.

Heffern answered a question regarding the waiving of the Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which prevented direct US aid to Azerbaijan. “We’re working with Azerbaijan on protecting critical infrastructure” in the oil fields.

As for the recognition of the Genocide, Heffern said, “Focus on 2015. As you talk about the issue and think about what can be done in that interval.”