Ambassador Hovhannissian Addresses New York Community at Meeting


By Florence Avakian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — In a message of “engaging directly with the people, and improving outreach,” Armenia’s Ambassador to the United States Grigor Hovhannissian, who has been in this office for a year, spoke at a gathering of local Armenian-American community leaders on Wednesday, May 31, at the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.

Attending were several representatives of religious, social, political and aid organizations including Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, pastor of the St. Illuminator’s Armenian Cathedral Rev. Mesrob Lakissian representing Prelate Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, Armenian Evangelical Church of New York minister Rev. Haig Kherlopian. Also present were leaders of the Armenian Assembly, Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), Armenia Fund, Tekeyan Cultural Association, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Armenian General Benevolent Union and others.

The ambassador, who previously was Armenia’s consul general in California, and has worked at the United Nations Secretariat, focused his more than two-hour PowerPoint talk on Armenia’s transition to a parliamentary system, the US presidential election and its relation to Armenia and Artsakh, and the four-day Azerbaijani attack in April.

Hovhannissian detailed the bilateral relations since 2016 with the US and Armenia, including high-level talks with President Obama and senior officials, as well as participation in the NATO summit, and Armenia’s support for peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan — a larger contingent (124 soldiers) than NATO countries, as well as economic, investment, trade and energy meetings in the US and Europe.

“The US is Armenia’s most important partner and plays a decisive role in the political and economic life of Armenia,” the ambassador stated.

Though some members of Congress have visited Armenia, support for Armenia in that body has “diminished” from 160 to 94 members in the Armenian caucus currently, entailing 75 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans, he said. “Most are nominal supporters with no real motivation, and most are unaware of the Armenian issues. They need to be educated. There are barely 10 who know the Armenian issues and community.”

He listed the issues for cooperation as energy, security, democracy, humanitarian, peacekeeping, military, education, trade, investment, policies against corruption, and nuclear non-proliferation.

“We need to take things to the next level, especially high level meetings with the US president, which has drastically declined since the Obama administration. The mechanisms of the Bilateral Cooperation agreement signed in 2015 are largely idle now, and US economic assistance to Armenia and Artsakh have dramatically declined,” he said.

The Trump administration has proposed for the 2018 fiscal year, a little over $6 million in aid to Armenia in 2018, a cut of 70 percent from 2017.

Demining — Crucial in Artsakh

In addition, funding for Artsakh will be eliminated. “This needs to be revised, as one of Artsakh’s most crucial and key elements is demining.” The diplomat pointed out that US military assistance to Azerbaijan and Georgia “is huge, but to Armenia very little, and the aid to Azerbaijan is used against Armenia.”

The US plays a “key role” in the Artsakh peace process as the co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, he stated, acknowledging that since President Trump’s election the phone calls with Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan have been “quite painful”. Azerbaijan also forced the closure of the OSCE office in Armenia, he said. “The very little progress we made has to be recognized,” he confessed.

Though Armenia’s exports have mainly included preserves, juices, liquor and jewelry amounting to $50 million to US markets, with a growth of about 22-percent yearly, the major commodity is the IT sector dealing with major IT companies in Armenia. They include such multinationals as Oracle, Cisco, D-Link, Synergy, National Instruments, Microsoft, Mentor Graphics, among others.

The value of Armenia’s IT services exported to the US exceeds $250 million, roughly five times the exports in commodities, he said, adding that he will travel to Silicon Valley to make this fact better known in the US.

The ambassador revealed that Armenia also needs to strengthen strategic alliances with certain ethnic groups in the US, notably the Jewish, Mexican and Evangelical communities which he claimed have similar objectives. (It was not made clear why these groups rather than others were selected.)

Key Objectives for 2017-2018

In order to reverse the downward trend between the US and Armenia, Hovhannissian listed Armenia’s “key 2017-2018 objectives,” which include continued US involvement in Artsakh’s peaceful resolution; the recognition of Armenia’s and Artsakh’s security needs; maintaining military cooperation and economic assistance programs; and high level meetings and political consultations.

He also mentioned the need for removing Armenia from the list of export control countries; the promotion of the IT sector, investment, R & D, and trade; networking with state authorities, consulates, businesses, investors in key US states; encouraging congressional delegations to visit Armenia, funded by Armenia, (with five to seven caucus leaders expected this fall; ongoing cooperation with the Evangelical leadership on Christian and other minorities in the Middle East.

He also advocated expanding the LAX-Armenia direct flights, and revealed that 50,000 Armenians from Los Angeles visit Armenia yearly. “California is Armenia’s gateway to the US,” he declared.

“We need reassurance and the highest possible dialogue and contact with the US,” he said. “Our relations with Russia do not prevent good relations with the US”

Before a brief question and answer period, the ambassador invited a representative of the Armenia Fund to deliver a talk about the organization’s contributions, infrastructure and projects in Armenia and Artsakh.

Concluding his presentation, Hovhannissian announced two extraordinary exhibits that will take place in 2018 in America. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will host a monumental exhibition of Armenian art next year, with artifacts from major Armenian churches and institutions from around the world. Also in 2018, Armenia will present the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to be held in Washington, D.C., marking the 400th anniversary of the Armenian community in the US.