ARMENIA: A successful new Armenia is emerging from a long Soviet shadow
Thomas Cromwell

Abdoulaye Wade

With a hostile Azerbaijan to the east and Turkey to the west, and an often chaotic Georgia to the north, Armenia has had to struggle to establish itself as a modern state after suffering 70 years under Soviet rule. It has been a fairly slow process as both the minds of people raised in the Soviet system and an economy built to serve it have had to undergo radical change.

But Armenia’s ambassador to Washington, Dr. Arman Kirakossian, sees a good bit to be hopeful about when discussing recent developments in his country. For one, conversion to a market economy has started to take hold, as investments begin to pay off, exports rise, and incomes increase. Last year, Armenia registered GDP growth of 13.9 percent and this year it should come in at 9.7 percent. This year its exports to the United States stood at $33 million (40 percent above the level for 2003), while imports from the US were $74 million. The main export is jewelry, with apparel in second place (including 40,000 uniforms for the NYPD).

This despite the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh, where, after the fall of the Soviet Union, fighting broke out between Azeris and the Armenian community there, supported by Armenia, Karabakh Armenians accounted for 80 percent of the population in the enclave at independence, but today there are no Azeris living in the territory (there are small groups of Russians, Greeks and Yazidis resident there).

It is 10 years since a ceasefire was put in place between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but to date a political settlement has eluded the parties. Nevertheless, an OSCE committee, called the Minsk Group, co-chaired by the US, Russia and France, has made progress through several rounds of meetings that have supported a series of bilateral talks between the two sides. A series of meetings among foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Minsk Group this past summer led to the announcement of a new round of peace talks, called the Prague process. Talks proceeded yet further at a follow-up meeting on December 6 and 9.

What’s more, the ambassador says, the new president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, while initially talking tough, threatening to restart military action and rallying Muslim nations to press for United Nations intervention, has moderated his position and has met three times with Armenian President Robert Kocharian. He has shown himself willing to find a compromise, and, the ambassador says, Armenia hopes he will become more pragmatic.

Armenia has made a number of proposals for a solution in the past but to date they have not been accepted. Now, the ambassador says, Yerevan’s position is simply that the Karabakh Armenians must be allowed to exercise self-determination and not be responsible to Baku. What it won’t accept is a return to the Soviet-era status quo, created by Stalin’s 1933 decision to add the Nagorno Karabakh region to Azerbaijan, of course without asking the people living there if they agreed!

Armenia is a country of long-suffering, and its people are scattered around many parts of the world. There are some three million living in Armenia, but five million living elsewhere, with concentrations in North America, Russia, and the Middle East. The United States has some 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, concentrated primarily in California.

American Armenians include some very successful individuals who have been active in helping Armenia get on its feet. The best-known is Kirk Krikorian, the owner of MGM. Last year he added to an earlier $200 million grant to build a major highway by funding a project to renovate central Yerevan and another to renew the country’s museums.

James Tufenkian has organized carpet weaving among the villages and is beginning to export the rugs to the United States. He has also started to invest in B&B properties. Vahakn Hovnanian of New Jersey’s Hovnanian Brothers (one of the top ten construction companies in the United States) is building an American-style town near Yerevan, and other projects.

Other investors have arrived by different routes. The devastating earthquake that in 1988 destroyed the town of Spitak and killed 25,000 Armenians, brought Utah’s Jon Huntsman to help with the reconstruction. He stayed on to build homes and to carry out other construction projects.

But there are also other Diaspora communities that are returning to help build the new state. There have been Armenian communities throughout much of the Middle East since the Ottoman Empire and the dispersion of Armenians from eastern Asia Minor in 1915. Some of these Armenians have been returning to their homeland, especially of late. Another group of importance is Armenians who went to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the idling of most of the Soviet factories in Armenia, including many secret Soviet plants. Many of the Armenians in Russia are now prospering there and investing back home, at least to the extent of building homes.

The American Armenian communities were created by three major waves of immigration. The first was in the late 19th Century and continued to World War I and the 1915 murders and deportation of Armenians by the Ottomans, persecution that the Armenians and most of the world say was genocide. (Turkey continues to dispute this and refuses to open its border with Armenia until Yerevan stops using the term. Ankara says it also wants to see the Nagorno Karabakh dispute resolved before it will negotiate with Armenia over a border agreement. Armenia has not placed conditions on normalizing relations. Washington sees the normalization of ties with Turkey and a resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict as critical for stability in the region.) The second wave occurred in the 1960s and was comprised primarily of Armenians from the Middle East, where conflicts made life increasingly difficult. The third wave followed the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of the 80s.

The economic recovery of Armenia is giving the country strength, and the momentum is there for a solution to the Nagorno Karabakh standoff. The Minsk Group seems an effective negotiating structure and it is clearly making some headway. The real sticking point is for the leaders of both nations to be able to find a workable solution based on mutual compromises and to sell that solution to their respective populations. The result would be welcome for both sides, ending an era of tension, with positive repercussions for the domestic politics and economies in both countries.

Ambassador Kirakossian says that while relations between his country and the United States have been "generally good," the terror attacks on 9/11 brought the two sides closer in security cooperation. Armenia quickly agreed to allow use of its air space for US Air Force planes headed to Afghanistan, and it has contributed intelligence and other tangible assistance to the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere, a peacekeeping unit to Kosovo, and has pledged doctors, de-miners and convoy drivers to Iraq.

From its side, Washington initiated two years ago a program of military aid and cooperation after President Bush waived Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act which prohibited the sale of US weapons to Azerbaijan so long as it was engaged in hostile acts against Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. In the name of parity, this had resulted in an arms embargo for Armenia as well. Now both countries get $8 million a year in assistance from Washington to boost their militaries and their ability to work with the United States Armed Forces.

In the broader picture, a special US-Armenian Task Force meets twice a year to improve bilateral relations across the board. It has focused on reform programs, trade, energy and other key areas of mutual concern. Recently the US Congress passed a measure establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Armenia, which is one of the first CIS countries to join the World Trade Organization (Georgia, Moldova and Kyrgystan are the others).

Biography of Ambassador Arman Kirakossian

Dr. Arman Kirakossian was appointed Armenian Ambassador to the United States on October 22, 1999 and presented his credentials to President Bill Clinton on February 3, 2000.  He holds the diplomatic rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. 

Prior to assuming this position, Dr. Kirakossian served as Armenia’s Ambassador to Greece from July 1994 to October 1999.  In March 1999, he also assumed the duties of the Dean of Diplomatic Corps in Athens, Greece.  Dr. Kirakossian was also accredited to Cyprus, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  From 1991 to 1994, he served as First Deputy Foreign Minister, and, from October 1992 to February 1993, he held the post of Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. 

Before embarking on a diplomatic career at the Foreign Ministry of Armenia, Ambassador Kirakossian held several high-level academic positions at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. He was Associate Director of the Armenian Diaspora Studies Department from 1990 to 1991 and served on Advisory Panel on Science and International Relations at the Armenian Government from 1986 to 1990. He was Senior Fellow, then Project Director at the Center of Scientific Information for Social Sciences at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences from 1980 to 1986.

Dr. Kirakossian was born on September 10, 1956 in Yerevan, Armenia. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Geography in 1977 and a Master’s degree in History of the Armenian and International Diplomacy in 1980 from the Armenian State Pedagogical University.  In November 1999, he earned the degree of Doctor of Sciences in History.

Dr. Kirakossian is the author of books and more than 100 scientific publications. Two of his books were published in the United States recently: British Diplomacy and the Armenian Question, by the Gomidas Institute, Princeton and London, 2003, and The Armenian Massacres 1894-1896: U.S. Media Testimony, by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2004. He has been awarded the Certificate of Merit for Scientific Research by the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, and Honorary Citizenship of Athens, presented by the Mayor of Athens in 1999.

In addition to his native Armenian, Ambassador Kirakossian is fluent in English and Russian.  He is married and has one son.