YEREVAN, MAY 19, ARMENPRESS. The key to a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future in the South Caucasus region is a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ambassador of the United States of America to Armenia Lynne Tracy said in an exclusive interview to ARMENPRESS, which was conducted on April 29 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Armenia-US diplomatic relations.
ARMENPRESS: Ambassador Tracy, thank you for accepting our interview invitation. This is the first time I have an honor to meet you, so I’m very grateful for this great opportunity.
Ambassador Tracy: First of all, let me extend my thanks to you and to Armenpress for this opportunity. I am happy to answer your questions.
ARMENPRESS: On January 2019, when we got the news on who was appointed as the new US Ambassador to Armenia, and it was actually you, Ms. Tracy, I described you in my story as a “hero diplomat, who has served in Kabul, Afghanistan, then in Peshawar, Pakistan, a brave person, who was targeted by “al-Qaeda” and “Taliban” islamist groups, even attacked by terrorists in 2008, as the Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, but returned to the post on the day and decided to stay and to complete her mission even in the face of repeated threats to her life. A year later, in 2009, you were awarded the Secretary’s Award for Heroism”. So how does the hero medalist feel in Armenia, having this kind of vast professional experience? How is the diplomatic mission in Armenia, in another quite tough region, in comparison with Afghanistan and Pakistan? How would you describe the last three years of your diplomatic mission in Yerevan, including the global pandemic and the second large-scale war in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Ambassador Tracy: Prior to being appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, I was indeed fortunate throughout my diplomatic career to serve in a variety of challenging but also fascinating places. While every country is different with its own challenges and opportunities, these experiences provided invaluable lessons in conducting diplomacy across different conditions.
As you mention, the last two years have been difficult for Armenia – aside from the COVID-19 pandemic which disrupted the way we lead our lives and conduct business across the world, Armenians suffered from the renewed hostilities in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 which ended in a fragile ceasefire. This has, of course, affected my work here as the U.S. Ambassador but also underscored the importance of diplomacy and, particularly, the strength of the U.S.-Armenian relationship.
Despite these challenges, it has been such a privilege to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, to work on issues that matter to the people of both our countries, and to have met so many wonderful Armenians along the way.
ARMENPRESS: This year Armenia and the USA celebrate the 30th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations. America was one of the first in the world to recognize the independence of the newly declared Republic of Armenia on December 25, 1991, when President George H.W. Bush announced the decision in a historic address to the nation regarding the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But history says that U.S.-Armenian relations go back much further. So how would you describe the bilateral relations between Armenia and the United States, as well as the Armenian-American friendship in a broader context on this memorable occasion?
Ambassador Tracy: As you said, while the United States and Armenia are celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between our two countries, the partnership between our peoples goes back even further. Despite challenges, Armenia – and our partnership – has come a long way since Armenia regained independence in 1991. The United States highly values our partnership with Armenia, which is based on shared democratic values, and continues to see a positive future for the U.S.-Armenia relationship. The U.S. Embassy is committed to supporting Armenia’s democratic and economic reform agenda and partnering with Armenia to achieve its goals. Our support crosses many sectors, including strengthening democratic institutions, fighting corruption, supporting law enforcement reforms, promoting inclusive economic development, ensuring international security and regional conflict resolution, and providing humanitarian assistance.
ARMENPRESS: Where are we now in terms of the development of U.S.-Armenian relations at 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties, and what perspectives do we have for next decades?
Ambassador Tracy: We are committed to continue helping the Armenian people build a future based on shared democratic values, a path they chose in 2018 and to which they recommitted themselves during the 2021 parliamentary election.
ARMENPRESS: The second virtual session of the U.S.–Armenia Strategic Dialogue was held recently, on March 23. According to the US Embassy reporting, high-ranking officials from both sides discussed “the ongoing defense and security cooperation between our countries and avenues to enhance our partnership to address common challenges”. It’s quite interesting to hear about such a discussion on a high level, especially considering Armenia’s post-war challenges in defense and security. So, could this kind of discussions open some new prospects of Armenian-American cooperation?
Ambassador Tracy: Democracy and the rule of law are cornerstones of the U.S.-Armenia relationship, but we have an even broader common positive agenda. Supporting sustainable and inclusive economic growth, expanding trade and investment, safeguarding regional and global security, promoting energy security, managing environmental resources responsibly, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and investing in people through educational and workforce development opportunities reflect the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Armenia partnership – one that we will continue to strengthen. The U.S.–Armenia Strategic Dialogue, which encompasses these various aspects of our relationship, underscores the value we place on the partnership between our two countries.
ARMENPRESS: In a broader context, could you tell us please, what is the main aim of the U.S.-Armenian Strategic Dialogue, where are they heading to? In other words, what is supposed to be the result of the initiated dialogue?
Ambassador Tracy: We don’t view the U.S.–Armenia Strategic Dialogue as simply a mechanism to achieve a specific outcome but also as an avenue to foster and maintain high-level dialogue between our two governments and underscore our commitment to strengthening our bilateral relationship. Through this dialogue, we are able to discuss the many elements of our partnership, such as building economic prosperity, advancing justice sector reforms, promoting democratic development and human rights, and strengthening our defense and security cooperation.
ARMENPRESS: As I remember, in 2018 Congressional Armenian Caucus had called the U.S. State Department “for a strategic upgrade of U.S.-Armenia relations – based on our shared interests, common values, and enduring friendship between our two nations”. Is the ongoing Strategic Dialogue aimed to reach that strategic upgrade in relations?
Ambassador Tracy: We value our partnership with Armenia, which is based on shared values and rooted in long-standing ties between our peoples. The Strategic Dialogue underscores our commitment to Armenia as we work together to advance Armenia’s democratic and economic reform efforts.
ARMENPRESS: According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, in 2021 the trade turnover between Armenia and the United States amounted to more than $219 million. How do you assess the dynamics of the development of trade and economic relations in recent years? Could you mention any specific areas of trade and economics where we have greater potential for development or similar interests?
Ambassador Tracy: We support Armenia’s economic growth and security to ensure more Armenians can participate in and benefit from the economy. We are also working to strengthen economic governance, empower competitive sectors, support energy market liberalization and competitiveness and address key water issues, expand capacity-building efforts in sectors with high growth potential, such as tourism, agriculture, and high tech, and address labor mismatches for employment.
ARMENPRESS: After the well-known political transition of 2018 in Armenia, one of the most trending questions in Armenian-American political discourse was the point that America should react to the democratic changes in Armenia, and should significantly increase its support to Armenia’s democratic and economic development, as the country started moving in exact direction of democratic development the United States used to encourage in recent 25 years. Have there really been significant shifts in Washington’s treatment or policies towards Armenia after mentioned changes, including the increase of U.S. assistance to the initiated political, economic and other reforms in Armenia?
Ambassador Tracy: Since Armenia’s independence, the United States has supported Armenia in its democratic aspirations – not because we have perfected it ourselves, but because we know how much work it takes to protect and defend. Critical to this task are building and maintaining strong democratic institutions and advancing the rule of law, providing inclusive economic opportunity for all, and broadening access to education and the protection of vulnerable populations. It is a process that demands unity, resolve and perseverance, often in the face of enormous challenges.
We support the Armenian government’s efforts to meet the expectations of the Armenian people, who are calling for democratic institutions, human rights and labor protections, security, an inclusive economy and rule of law.
Over the past thirty years, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion to help improve the lives of the Armenian people. In the year following the 2018 transition of power, USAID assistance increased by 88 percent, and the United States was the first foreign country to provide elections assistance in Armenia after the events of April and May of that year. In 2021, the U.S. Government allocated $76 million to support critical needs, economic security, democracy, human rights and governance, safety and security, and social and human rights programs.
ARMENPRESS: We had a report last week from D.C. saying President Biden’s Administration proposed just over $24 million in foreign assistance to Armenia – $21 million less than what Congress allocated and the President approved for FY2022 just weeks ago, no figure for Artsakh aid. There is some controversy in media saying this isn’t the correct amount the government offers to provide. So, could you clarify please why the Administration decided to cut the US assistance for Armenia, what is the correct amount of proposed financial aid, could it be increased through Congressional process?
Ambassador Tracy: I’m glad you raised this point as there have been some misunderstandings on the topic. The development of the U.S. government budget is a complicated process that involves a set of recommendations, followed by discussion, and then a final decision by Congress. We do not yet have a final number for FY2023 so are unable to make any comparisons to FY2022. What is certain is that our commitment to further partnering with Armenia to advance our shared democratic values remains steadfast.
ARMENPRESS: As we know, in the year of 2019 the U.S. government decided to end funding for Artsakh demining program. However, the FY2022 aid package for Armenia included an additional $2 million in U.S. demining assistance for those affected by the 2020 large-scale military aggression of Azerbaijan on Armenia and Artsakh. Is there any possibility or probability that Artsakh demining program could be restored?
Ambassador Tracy: Through our partners Halo Trust, the U.S. Government supported demining assistance in Nagorno-Karabakh. That project came to an end in 2020 when Halo’s reporting indicated that an extremely high percentage of the areas worked in had been demined. We continue to explore support for those impacted by the recent conflict.
ARMENPRESS: By the way, as you were born and raised in Barberton, Ohio, this part of your biography reminded me some great memories, as Ohio was the first American state I visited in 2016 to cover the final round of U.S. presidential elections, thanks to the Foreign Press Tour organized and financed by the US Embassy Yerevan and the State Department. I mean, this was one of the greatest and memorable trips in my life both in terms of personal and professional development, as one could not only improve his language skills, professional vision during such trips, but also enlarge his worldview, as he gets a chance to visit the greatest economy and the best-known democracy in the world. He gets a chance to study how the American democracy and its political system work on the ground, how the elections are being held in a country, which serves as an example for many nations in the world in terms of democratic institutions. He’s given a chance to contact a value-based country culturally, so he could bring all of this knowledge to his own country for a useful purpose, turning himself into a good connecting link between the two nations and cultures as an opinion maker. Therefore, as I suppose, America’s foreign relations, including U.S.-Armenia, in a big part are about this kind of assisting and promoting programs. What kind of new projects does the U.S. Embassy plan to offer to the civil society, media, political class of Armenia in the near future?
Ambassador Tracy: Thank you. Your experience underscores why we place such an importance on strengthening people-to-people ties between the United States and Armenia. Getting to know each other on an individual level helps foster greater mutual understanding, which then extends to communities and nations as a whole.
The Embassy encourages the development of people-to-people ties in a variety of ways, including through English language programs, development of STEM education in Armenia, cultural preservation activities, and exchange programs where we send Armenians to the United States to engage with their peers.
Among our numerous programs, let me highlight the newly established American Studies program in cooperation with Yerevan State University and Arizona State University in the United States which was launched just this past fall.
ARMENPRESS: Regarding Nagorno-Karabakh: do you reaffirm the position you have repeatedly expressed after the 44-Day War that the United States does not consider the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as having been resolved, until the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is decided, and the conflict needs a comprehensive resolution? Do I understand correctly that according to the official Washington position, the status of Artsakh should be determined on the basis of the well-known principles negotiated under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs?
Ambassador Tracy: Indeed, it is U.S. policy that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be resolved. We continue to believe that the issues that led to the fighting in 2020 and are the root of the lasting tensions need to be addressed through negotiation and through a comprehensive settlement, according to internationally recognized principles, including territorial integrity, self-determination of peoples, and the non-use of force. We encourage further peace negotiations and stand ready to engage bilaterally and with like-minded partners, including through our role as an OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair.
ARMENPRESS: Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev has stated many times after the war that “the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs have nothing to do with Nagorno-Karabakh, because Azerbaijan has already resolved the conflict”. This is the main point repeatedly expressed by Azerbaijan’s leadership in a very aggressive and arrogant way, as one can read in the media and public statements. So how could the negotiation process on Karabakh be activated again, considering Azerbaijan’s destructive position on the activity of Minsk Group Co-Chairs? What kind of actions the United States are going to take to help this situation?
Ambassador Tracy: Let me emphasize that there is no military solution to the conflict. The United States remains committed to promoting a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for the South Caucasus region. This includes applying existing mechanisms for direct communication to find comprehensive solutions to all outstanding issues, and to normalize their relations through the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement. The United States remains ready to assist Armenia and Azerbaijan with these efforts, including in our capacity as a Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group to help the countries find a long-term comprehensive peace.
ARMENPRESS: How do you assess the recent actions of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the gross violations of the ceasefire agreement of 9th of November, 2020, the military invasion of Azerbaijani armed forces into the Armenian village of Parukh (Askeran region) on March, instigation of humanitarian crisis in Artsakh through various actions, such as the widely reported disruption of natural gas supply to the population last month, Azerbaijan’s attempts to terrorize ethnic Armenians morally and psychologically, as the Human Rights Defenders say, broadcasting threatening messages in Armenian language through loudspeakers to the peaceful inhabitants of Khramort village (Askeran region) particularly, as well as the subsequent destruction of Artsakh’s Armenian cultural heritage, as you can read in many local and international reports and statements, including the Resolution of European Parliament on the destruction of cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh dated 10th of March, 2022. Do you agree with the assessment that this is a clear policy of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan? How could even be discussed any status of Artsakh within Azerbaijan in such reality, when the life of people living there is under a real danger?
Ambassador Tracy: As we stated before, actions, such as the recent gas disruptions and Azerbaijan’s troop movements across the line of contact, are a cause for concern. In his phone call with Prime Minister Pashinyan on April 5, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken underscored the importance of avoiding further escalation in the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan need to use direct communications channels to deescalate.
ARMENPRESS: What kind of actions could the United States take in order to protect the vital and fundamental rights of Artsakh’s indigenous people? After all, democracy and the protection of human rights are among the top priorities of U.S. foreign policy, aren’t they?
Ambassador Tracy: Indeed, as I said earlier, we continue to believe that the key to a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future in the region is a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Self-determination of peoples is a key, though not the only, internationally recognized principle to achieve this goal, and, in the context of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, the United States, as a co-chair country of the OSCE Minsk Group, recognizes the role of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding its future.
ARMENPRESS:The US Embassy reported you had a meeting with relatives of Armenian prisoners of war held in Azerbaijan. Is there any progress in the process of their return?
Ambassador Tracy: Yes, I met on March 29 with relatives of Armenian servicemembers who were captured in 2020 and 2021—some of whom have received long sentences from Azerbaijani courts, some whose fates are currently unknown.
We urge the release of all prisoners as well as increased efforts to obtain information about the fate of missing servicemembers, including from the 1990s, noting the pain of families who do not know their loved ones’ whereabouts or fate.
ARMENPRESS: Having regard to the recent high-level meeting between the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev by the mediation of the President of European Council Charles Michel in Brussels on April 6, what is the U.S. position on the started high-level dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan to normalize bilateral relations between the two states and the ongoing negotiation process aimed at unblocking transport and economic communications in the region?
Ambassador Tracy: We welcomed the April 6 meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev in Brussels, the positive momentum on preparations for peace talks, and forward movement on the formation of a bilateral commission on border delimitation. The United States remains committed to promoting a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for the South Caucasus region. As the Secretary emphasized in his recent calls with the two leaders on April 5, we continue to encourage further peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and reiterate the United States stands ready to engage bilaterally and with like-minded partners, including through our role as an OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair, to help the countries find a long-term comprehensive peace.
ARMENPRESS: What prospects do you see for the normalization of Armenia’s diplomatic relations with another neighbor, Turkey, as a new dialogue between Yerevan and Ankara officially started recently? As I remember, America was always supportive to the issue of normalization between Armenia and Turkey, especially during the well-known process of so-called “Football Diplomacy”. Does the Administration support these new negotiations, considering the ongoing regional and geopolitical situation?
Ambassador Tracy: The United States supports dialogue between Turkey and Armenia that can lead to full normalization of relations between these two neighbors—an outcome important to the future of both countries and for stability in the Caucasus.
It has long been and remains the position of the United States that normalization should take place without preconditions or linkage to any other issues, including the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations.
ARMENPRESS: The historic statement by President Joe Biden on Armenian Genocide recognition became one of the most important and memorable events of last year for Armenia and of Armenian-American relations in general. Millions of Armenians were waiting for it for years and thousands of people in America were fighting for it for decades not only for the sake of justice, but also because of the great influence of the States in the world and in the international relations particularly. So, should we expect and hope that Biden’s recognition will facilitate and foster the recognition and condemnation of mass killings and deportation of more one and half million Armenians from their homeland as a genocide, as a real crime against humanity by the whole international community, including Turkey? What is your comment regarding this issue?
Ambassador Tracy: The President is committed to promoting respect for human rights across the globe and working to ensure such atrocities are not repeated. A critical part of that is acknowledging history. The President’s statement noted we mourn the one and half million Armenians who were victims of the Armenian genocide during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The United States respects the perseverance of Armenians around the world in the wake of such a great tragedy. As the statement noted, the U.S. commemoration of Remembrance Day is to honor the victims, not to assign blame. We encourage and welcome efforts to acknowledge and reckon with this painful period in history, which is a critical step towards building a foundation for a more just and tolerant future.
ARMENPRESS: Besides all of the questions above, it’s also interesting to hear and to learn from you what is the internal social-economic, social-political situation in the United States now? I mean, America faced so many tough challenges in recent years, including the pandemic crisis and the unprecedented public division after the presidential election of 2016, a very hard period for the country, the culmination of which I think was the attack on the US Congress buildings by the protesters last year. What are the most important news and developments in America you think people in Armenia should know about?
Ambassador Tracy: Thank you. Indeed, the last few years have brought some challenges, including those that you listed, but at the same time has also shown the resiliency of the American people and the resiliency of our democratic system of government.
COVID-19 indeed brought unprecedented disruptions not just in the United States but across the world, affecting everything from health care to education to the global economy. But, while we need to acknowledge the toll of the pandemic and understand that it is not over, our response also showed tremendous resiliency and ingenuity that helped us combat the disease, including by developing new vaccines and life-saving medicine in record time, adjusting to the disruptions and the new normal, and, in the end, coming out stronger on the other side. Despite often very public debates, more than two thirds of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, and, due in large parts to U.S. efforts COVID-19 vaccine is now widely available across the world.
Another theme I would like to touch on is climate change. Rooted in increased awareness of the impact of climate change, we are seeing a shift in how we, as a society, think about our future in the context of climate change. The majority of Americans see at least some effects of climate change, including long periods of hot temperatures, water shortages and droughts, wildfires, or severe weather patterns, such as floods or storms. With this, there is a growing awareness that climate change is a major threat to the country’s future, resulting in a desire to do more and faster to address the root causes of climate change. Indeed, this trend will certainly continue, as the impact of climate change becomes more and more visible. I can tell you that from the State Department’s perspective, tackling the climate crisis is at the center of U.S. foreign policy, diplomacy, and national security.
What I would like to underscore is the U.S. commitment to the democratic process, as we hold the mid-term elections for the Senate and House of Representatives this fall. Our commitment is firm and grounded in our own experience as a democracy—imperfect, but continuously striving for a more perfect union. I am certainly not blind to the issues faced by the United States, but I strongly believe that democracy best addresses the greatest challenges of our time and offers the path forward not only for the United States but for Armenia as well.
ARMENPRESS: And the last question: are there going to be any events dedicated to the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations?
Ambassador Tracy: We have been running our 30th anniversary campaign since Armenia’s Independence Day on September 21. I encourage you and your readers to follow our Facebook pages to learn about key milestones in our relationship, hear from former U.S. Ambassadors to Armenia, and stay up to date on our activities. I also strongly hope that we will be able to hold an in-person reception to celebrate the U.S. Independence Day, which would be a fitting way to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries.
Interview by Aram Sargsyan
Picture Kevork Perkupekyan