HOUSTON, TEXAS — On the weekend of December 3-4 special celebrations were held at St. Kevork Armenian Church of Houston, Texas, to observe the 30th anniversary of the church, the 20th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Armenia, and the 40th anniversary of Archbishop Barsamian’s ordination into the holy priesthood.
The banquet Keynote speaker Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, the founding director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at nearby Rice University and a former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Israel, spoke about Armenia’s development and encouraged people in the diaspora to “be strong advocates of democracy in Armenia.”
Following is the full text of his remarks.
Your Eminencc Archbishop Barsamian, members of the clergy, distinguished guests and friends.
It is truly an honor for me to participate in today’s commemorations with several signif1cant anniversaries to celebrate—the 30th anniversary of St. Kevork Church of Houston, the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 40th anniversary of Archbishop Barsamian’s ordination into the holy priesthood. By my count that adds up to 90 years of commemorations. That is quite an Armenian package deal!
I have been asked to make some remarks on the significance of the milestones we are commemorating today. Concerning the 30th anniversary of our Armenian Church here in Houston and His Eminence Archbishop Barsamian’s distinguished and long service to the Armenian Church and people, I wish to first underscore the historic importance of the Armenian Church and its clergy as a central factor in the life of the Armenian people and nation.
When I was assigned to the United States Embassy in Moscow where I was the Political Counselor during President Jimmy Carter’s Administration, it was a very difficult period following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Toward the end of our tour of duty, my wife and I and our young son visited Soviet Armenia. The Armenian Communist Party leadership was a bit nervous about my visit, given the adversarial state of US-Soviet relations at that time, and their suspicion that I might try to stir up Armenian nationalist sentiment.
In stark contrast, our visit was warmly welcomed by the Armenian Church and by Vehapar Vasken I, who received us in Etchmiadzin. We had a direct introduction to the central role of the Armenian Church as the symbol of Armenian nationalism. After my rather fruitless and protocolaire meetings with government officials in Yerevan, I was met by a young, staunchly nationalist Armenian priest who escorted us on our first visit to Etchmiadzin. While the car was passing under the red Soviet propaganda banners displayed across the road, the young priestasked me if I could read Russian and I replied affirmatively. He then said, what does that banner say? I replied, “The unity of the people and the Communist Party.” The priest then turned his head toward me and said, “You are not a good Armenian.” Rather surprised, I asked why not. He replied that “a real Armenian would have read that banner to say “the unity of the people and the Church.” I got the point, and we were, indeed, on our way to Etchmiadzin; this young Armenian priest’s words would prove to be especially prophetic a decade later.
The challenge for Armenians in Armenia and throughout the Diaspora today is to work together to ensure that Armenia realizes the true fruits of independence by evolving as a truly democratic state living under the rule of law, providing its people with economic prosperity and security, and pursuing an enlightened foreign policy that maximizes Armenia’s great potential to be a cultural, economic, commercial, scientific and democratic center in the Caucasus and as a regional bridge between the North and South and the East and West.
The role of the Armenian Diaspora in supporting Armenia’s evolution is critical. Armenians living in countries which enjoy the fruits of liberty, democracy and the benefits of private market economies want, 1am convinced, that Armenia will evolve as a strong and stable democracy endowed with freedom and the rule of law as the hallmarks of the Armenian political system. Armenia, since it became an independent republic in 1991, set out on this path. But this evolution must be consolidated. These democratic ideals are real values that Armenians both in Armenia and in the Diaspora hold to be dear. Especially, as Americans, we must be true to our values and must be strong advocates of democracy in Armenia.
Democracy and economic development and reforms go hand in hand. Armenia’s business environment, economic development and foreign investment must be promoted in a more even and transparent manner. Over the past decade, Armenia has achieved economic growth in spite of being cut off from markets (13.3% GDP growth in 2006 and an estimated 13.8% GDP growth in 2007 but a real decline to an estimated 4.6% in 2011).
Unemployment in 2010 was 7%, which is lower than here in the United States. Furthermore, the World Bank recently reported that doing business in Armenia has become easier over the past year due to tax and regulatory reforms. Still, Armenia must do better and attract additional foreign investment.
Concerning the Diaspora’s role in investment in Armenia and despite the structural problems, several Diaspora investors are active in Armenia. Much more needs to be done to encourage and facilitate investment from other Armenians in the Diaspora who live in the countries of Europe, the United States, Latin America and the Middle East.
However, to accomplish this, the rule of law and anti-corruption policies need to be more vigorously pursued.
Unfortunately, one of Armenia’s most important exports has been its people. This is particularly troubling given the small size of Armenia. With a population of less than three million, Armenia can ill afford to lose its “best and brightest.”
Further, Armenia must look at current trends in the region. The Russian-Georgia conflict destabilized the Caucasus region and beyond. Russia is asserting itself in the “near abroad.” While Armenia’s relations with Russia will remain very important, Armenia must avoid becoming over-dependent on Russia. Turkey is looking westward, seeking to be part of the European Community, while strengthening its ties in the Middle East and Central Asia and improving its relationship with the United States. Georgia and Azerbaijan are actively pursuing stronger relations with the West.
Iran’s future direction remains problematic, but it is a major regional player. Increasingly, change in Iran is not a question of if, but of when. Iran’s policies will have important implications for Armenia, a neighboring border country.
Armenia’s relations with the United States are very important and involve interaction on issues such as non-proliferation and border security, international narcotics, money laundering and the trafficking in persons, and the development of democratic institutions and sustainable economic growth. Washington also appreciated Armenia’s support in Iraq.
Thus, the promise for Armenia’s security and prosperity rests with following the major trends toward regional and international integration. Armenia can no longer risk being “the odd man out.” Indeed, Armenia should rediscover and reaffirm its historic role as a bridge between the North and South, and the East and West.
Armenians recognize that open borders with its neighbors will bring peace and prosperity. The government of Armenia should continue efforts that will benefit the country in the long-term: Namely, serious efforts within the OSCE Minsk Group process on Nagorno-Karabakh and work toward establishment of full diplomatic relations with Turkey should remain top priorities. The Diaspora should strongly discourage the false idea that time is on Armenia’s side. Further, I believe the key issue of the Armenian Genocide can best be resolved within the context of improved state to state relations between Armenia and Turkey.
Every year without full relations with neighbors comes with huge opportunity costs for Armenia. For example, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline’s most economically commercial routing would have been through Armenia. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey will benefit from this energy-related commercial linkage. Despite Azerbaijan’s current internal political difficulties, its economic and military potential will only grow in the years ahead. Rhetorically, this was underscored by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev in 2005, who boasted of his country’s military muscle at a rally of the ruling party in the capital of Baku: “Azerbaijan has recently got the upper hand in negotiations with Armenia over the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Military and economic potential are on our side. We will get our lands back,” Aliev said. While this militant posturing docs little to help the situation, it docs reveal the fact that Armenia’s current military advantage is only temporary, and should not be taken for granted.
Despite the rhetoric and looking ahead, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the help of the international community, must make every effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabagh issue in a timely and comprehensive manner. Let me make clear that the window of opportunity will not remain open for too long.
In 1999 and in my current capacity as the Director of the Baker Institute at Rice University we conducted a conflict resolution mission and flew to Baku and to Yerevan to help facilitate the negotiations between the parties on the issue of Nagorno-Karabagh. We were received at the highest levels in both countries and did what we could to move the process forward. I was heartened later in 2001 by the high level involvement of President George W. Bush, and then Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department team in urging the parties to move forward. A unique opportunity with the highest level of United States involvement to achieve a peaceful settlement was missed by the Azeri and Armenian leadership. I am convinced that a negotiated settlement is still possible. But it will take strong political will on the part of the leadership obtains the support of the people of both countries. Such an approach would be an important confidence building measure.
What concerns me the most now is that it has been well over a decade since the NagornoKarabagh ceasefire; and failed efforts to find a negotiated settlement are resulting in the hardening of political attitudes amongst certain domestic constituencies in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It would indeed be a tragedy if the willingness expressed by the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan to make a lasting peace coupled with the progress made in recent years during negotiations at different levels should all falter. Both sides must take steps now to confront those groups, both in Armenia and Azerbaijan that have vested interests in the status quo. Without a determined effort of public diplomacy, the entrenched hard-line posturing on all sides could become one of the most serious obstacles to peace.
Even if there is no outbreak of fighting in the near term, the absence of an agreement will have a major negative effect posing an obstacle to the political economic and social development and progress of both Armenia and Azerbaijan and can lead to regional instability in the South Caucasus. But again, it is not just the peace process itself that is the sole challenge. The need to “sell” and secure any peace deal is an equally difficult challenge for both sides. Here the Armenian Diaspora can playa more constructive role in encouraging the parties to negotiate.
In conclusion, Armenia and Armenians in and outside of Armenia face formidable challenges. But much has been achieved. The Armenian Church is playing a dynamic and revitalized role in the life of the Armenian people. The Armenian nation has achieved its independence and has the capacity to prosper and become a true crossroads in Europe and the Middle East. I am optimistic as long as we all put our shoulders to the wheel and work for peace and prosperity for Armenia and its people. In this respect, I think you will all agree with mc that the role of all of us in the Diaspora is very important. So as we celebrate the three anniversaries today, let us dedicate ourselves to the future of the Armenian Church and the people of Armenia in the homeland and in the Diaspora.