YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — The United States plans to hold early next year “strategic discussions” with Armenia on ways of strengthening bilateral relations, a senior U.S. State Department official said at the end of a visit to Yerevan on Tuesday.
George Kent, the U.S deputy assistant secretary of state for the European and Eurasian affairs, met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian as well as Armenian parliamentarians, businesspeople and civil society members during the two-day trip. He reaffirmed Washington’s readiness to help the new Armenian government implement sweeping political and economic reforms promised by it.
“The U.S. remains ready to be a supportive partner as Armenia moves forward in improving its quality of institutions,” Kent told a news conference.
“I believe after the [Armenian parliamentary] elections we will hold the next round of U.S.-Armenia Task Force strategic discussions,” he said. “I expect those will take place in Washington in the new year, perhaps in February. And I think that will be an excellent moment or us to talk about how we can deepen our relationship.”
Kent pointed out that the U.S. already provided Armenia with $14 million in additional aid following last spring’s “velvet revolution” that brought Pashinian to power. He said it can specifically support the Pashinian government’s anti-corruption efforts and “programs on ways of diversifying the Armenian economy.”
“U.S. companies will be prepared to invest in Armenia if the investment climate is supportive of large-scale investment,” Kent went on. “So it was interesting for me to hear the experience of U.S. companies [doing business in Armenia,] whether they are in hydroelectric power or other areas.”
“I think there is a lot of discussion now about a large mining investment that is under review, and as I told Armenian political leaders yesterday, it’s critical that contracts are upheld in order that Armenia can continue to attract investment that will create good jobs and allow Armenians to work with dignity here in Armenia, rather than going overseas,” he stressed.
The U.S. official clearly referred to the continuing disruption of operations at the Amulsar gold deposit in southeastern Armenia which was developed by the Anglo-American company Lydian International.
All roads leading to Amulsar have been blocked since June 23 by dozens of people protesting against gold mining operations there which they say are fraught with serious risks to the environment.
Lydian has dismissed these concerns, saying that it will use modern and safe technology. The company, which claims to have invested more than $300 million in Amulsar, has condemned the disruption of its operations as illegal.
The Armenian government, meanwhile, remains reluctant to forcibly unblock the Amulsar roads. Pashinian said late last month that the government is now seeking more evidence that open-pit mining would not contaminate water in the area.
The Amulsar project is strongly supported by the U.S. and British governments. The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, Richard Mills, has repeatedly warned that its possible scrapping would discourage further U.S. investments in the Armenian economy.
“As a friend of Armenia, I fear that if this issue is not resolved soon it could put a large cloud over the attractiveness of Armenia as a place to do business,” Mills warned last week. He noted “the absence of evidence of significant violations of Armenian environmental laws” by Lydian.
Pashinian briefed Kent on his government’s reform agenda when they met on Monday. He had earlier expressed readiness to “strengthen and expand” U.S.-Armenian relations.
Kent said that Armenia’s relations with neighboring Iran and renewed U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran will also be on the agenda of Bolton’s talks.
“While we understand the challenges for Armenia in terms of regional trade, we remain very concerned about the behavior of elements of the Iranian military and state in regional instability, not regional stability,” Kent said in this regard. “So there are questions of legitimate trade but there are also questions of how the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards and Quds force sponsor terrorism.”
“So I think you can expect a frank and active exchange of perspectives during Ambassador Bolton’s visit about positive opportunities in the bilateral relationship and challenges to regional stability,” added the U.S. official.