Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Yerevan, Armenia

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Good afternoon, everyone. It is a pleasure to be joining you here at the stunning Cafesjian Center – a place that holds so many testaments to the rich history of this country, also to the resilience of its people, and the extraordinary contributions that Armenians have made all over the world. 

I am here today because Armenia has an important window of opportunity – to build prosperity, to strengthen its democracy, and to achieve the peace that the people have been dreaming about for so long. We, at USAID, and we in the United States more broadly, are committed to helping Armenia make the most of this window of opportunity. 

Since the Armenian people rose up and demanded change in 2018, Armenia has made significant progress – advancing democratic reforms so that the government can be more responsive to the needs of citizens, generating economic opportunities that previously had been denied by corruption, and leading the region – the broader region – in economic growth. 

Today, Armenia stands close to a peace agreement that could put an end to decades of conflict, as members of the Armenian and the Azerbaijani governments continue to negotiate toward a settlement. The United States will do everything it can to help Armenia capitalize on this historic moment. 

Over the last two years, USAID has more than doubled our support to Armenia. We have supported the Armenian people’s push for democratic reforms, helping to stand up the essential Corruption Prevention Commission. We have supported independent media outlets to promote transparent and accountable governance by holding elected officials and others accountable. And we have worked with the government to conduct what are called “sludge audits,” namely, assessments of where bureaucratic, administrative paperwork burdens are harming the lives of citizens, delaying progress, impeding private sector investments, and the like. So with the conducting of these sludge audits, we are working together to identify where those bureaucratic burdens need to be taken away in order to boost  – to unlock faster progress. 

At the same time, we have worked together to spur economic growth. We have helped connect Armenian businesses with new markets for exports like wine and fruit. We have supported the building of an engineering city, which will prepare students for careers in STEM fields – a major area of emphasis for the government. We have helped the government improve import and export investment opportunities in priority sectors like agriculture, tourism, and technology. Investments like these are paying dividends for both of our countries. U.S.-Armenia trade has more than tripled since 2020, growing from $96 million back in 2020, to $321 million in 2023. We know that that trajectory can become even more steep, and the growth in trade between our two countries can accelerate. 

Even as we continue to provide development assistance to Armenia, I want to stress, we are truly moving from aid to trade. And I just met with the Prime Minister [Nikol Pashinyan] and this is a major area of focus for him, is increasing trade between the United States and Armenia. 

We are doing everything we can to build on the progress that I just described, from the historic trilateral meeting with the European Union, in support of Armenia in Brussels in April, which I have the privilege of attending, to the elevation of our bilateral relationship to a Strategic Partnership just last month, and today, I am pleased to announce several new, joint U.S.-Armenia initiatives that will further build the Armenian people’s resilience and position them to take advantage of this historic moment. 

In the wake of the devastating flooding in the Lori and Tavush provinces, I am announcing a new partnership to help local communities better prepare for future natural disasters. All around the world, we know that there will be an uptick in natural disasters brought about at least in part, by changing weather patterns associated with climate change. Being prepared for those natural disasters is all of our responsibility. And we are excited to see what we can do to help local communities in this regard. 

I’m also announcing today a critical partnership to help strengthen Armenia’s food security. We will be working with a leading U.S. company led by a member of the Armenian diaspora to support agricultural research and development to boost domestic food production in the face of climate driven stresses. For instance, we will support the development of drought- and flood-tolerant wheat varieties – varieties specifically designed to grow here in Armenia.

And finally, we are working to build the technology infrastructure that will help the government deliver services to its people, keep citizens’ data secure, and spur greater technology-driven growth in Armenia. This morning, as some of you might have heard, we announced a new $5 million investment by USAID in a collaboration with Amazon to help build the secure digital systems Armenia will need to modernize essential public services, and frankly, to continue to modernize its economy. Now, I am also announcing a further $2.4 million in funding to help strengthen legal frameworks so that technologies are developed in a way that protects citizens’ data and safeguards citizens’ human rights.

America is committed to showing up for Armenia. America is committed to show up for Armenians. We are committed to showing up for the future that the Armenian people are building today. With a thriving democracy, a robust and an ever expanding economy, and a chance for every Armenian to build a stable and fulfilling life. Thank you so much, and I will be taking your questions. 

QUESTION: Ms. Power, last time when you were here in Yerevan during the press conference, you said that many people, also officials, shared with you their concerns about Azerbaijan's possible plans to attack Armenia. What concerns have we shared this time with you? And do you believe that peace agreement is possible between Yerevan and Baku having in mind [President of Azerbaijan Ilham] Aliyev new demands, including the change of constitution? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you for the question. I think right now, or in a few hours in Washington, there is a trilateral meeting that will be held, chaired by Secretary [Antony] Blinken with the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The message that Secretary Blinken will deliver is: the parties are so close, they have actually come a remarkable distance, if you think about where they were, even one year ago. And what that peace agreement would unlock for the people of both countries, is really quite staggering to behold in terms of the connectivity benefits and transportation benefits. And ultimately, what it comes down to for individual families, the benefits in terms of livelihoods, job opportunities, and continued economic growth. Already, Armenia’s economy has been on a very positive trajectory. But for the Armenian people to be unleashed, to be able to trade more within the region, borders to be opened, for goods and people to be able to move more freely, that would be a major upgrade and present major opportunities. 

So, you know, obviously, the outstanding issues are incredibly complex, many of them are very sensitive. Ultimately it’s up to the governments, up to the people in both countries, but certainly from the United States perspective, the opportunities that will be unleashed, and we really hope that the parties will embrace the recognition that those opportunities are too important to pass up. 

What I will say about my meeting with the Prime Minister is that the emphasis really is on Armenia's independence, its resilience. We talked about some of the initiatives that I've mentioned here today, in terms of food security, we talked about energy, and wanting to avoid any kind of strategic vulnerability when it comes to energy. I had the chance to spend some time at the Polytechnic yesterday and really dive into the Armenian government's energy strategy, which, as you know, calls for much greater use of renewable energy like solar, calls for adaptation of the reliance on nuclear energy in a manner that is more sustainable, and that can be a power source for other energy sources. So that is an example, again, of an area where Armenia is seeking to diversify its approach, just as it is in its trading relationships, and so forth. So I think that really has been the emphasis. 

There have been major changes, you know, to Armenia’s security posture, in terms of the border presence, airport presence, and so forth. But really, the emphasis of the Prime Minister is on the government delivering for its citizens in the here and now, and in a way that citizens can have confidence, will be lasting. To reduce the vulnerability to shocks, to reduce the vulnerability to any one partner or any one supply chain. 

And these are the same kinds of conversations we're having with the United States as well. The combination of COVID, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and all of the economic effects of that, the Houthi attacks on civilian shipping from the Red Sea – there are so many shocks coming at the global economic system that are having real effects on families. So, I think the Prime Minister's emphasis is on human security. And the need for the government, just as our government is doing, to do everything it can to build in a capacity to absorb any shock. 

QUESTION: I’d like to ask how do you see the protection of the rights of the people of  Nagorno-Karabakh, taking the current situation into consideration? Last time you were in Armenia you were asked whether you could call what was happening in Nagorno-Karabakh “ethnic cleansing,” I will ask the same question now that almost a year has passed. 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. First, let me say that because I was here in September, at the border when families from Nagorno-Karabakh were fleeing into Armenia, I still carry with me, the memories of the stories that they told me about the terror that they experienced. The fears, not only in the immediate, but just before their arrival here in Armenia, but you know, not being able to access food and medicine over so many months prior to Azerbaijan’s seizure of their communities. 

And so, again, the human suffering, in many cases, the individuals that I met with had lost contact with members of their family in the rush to get out of the country because of the fear. You know, in the engagements I've had on this trip, with families from Nagorno-Karabakh it has been a relief to know that some of those families, many of those families, have managed to reunite and find one another. But that is not true for everyone. And yesterday, I visited a business, owned and run by a businessman from Nagorno-Karabakh who fled here several years ago, and he's employing people who have just come to this country. And one of his employees’ husband is still missing, another was killed in the fighting. So this is reflective, I think, of the experiences that so many families have endured. 

To your question on their rights, I will say that just as was true when I met with the Prime Minister in Brussels, so too, today, he placed a very significant emphasis on the welfare of the more than 100,000 people who have come here just since September – on their rights, on their welfare. The government, as you know, is making significant efforts to provide job opportunities, or to provide job training to those individuals so they have access to employment. I believe the June job numbers for recent arrivals from Nagorno-Karabakh will show an increase in employment. But there's no question that the suffering of this population is still enormous, just because all that was left behind, and all of the pain that was endured.

USAID supports these families with psychosocial support. We have provided some support to the kindergartens and schools that have integrated children who have undergone significant trauma. And the United States joins with so many in the international community in calling for the right of these individuals and families to be able to voluntarily, safely return to their homes. And for many families, that desire is simply to go and to visit a church, or a monastery, or a gravesite of a family member. But so far, again, those returns have not happened in any sustained way. But that is something that we will continue to urge and to push for. The conditions have to be right for people to feel safe to go back. So fundamentally that is going to require a change in circumstances on the ground right now.

With regard to your second question, what I will say is, you know, I am a member of the Biden Administration – the specific question of the legal determination of what happened is something that the State Department investigates. We are all aware of the recent reporting that has come out and that has provided a lot of documentation, interviews with very significant numbers of families who went through what happened over the recent years, but very specifically, in September, and so, unfortunately, I can't get ahead of what the State Department's determination in that regard will be. 

QUESTION (via translation)Madam Power, I am glad to see you in Armenia again, but you are talking about topics that raise concerns. Could you please specify your ideas regarding the vision of peace when Azerbaijan continues to detain Armenian prisoners of war and the government of Artsakh in prisons in Baku, and as various international organizations and reports point out, they continue to be tortured, and there is also the circumstance of ethnic cleansing which you are not giving a legal assessment to yet, however it is evident that more than a 100,000 Armenians from Artsakh were forcibly displaced and came to Armenia. 

And my main question: in your speeches, you periodically speak about the progress of democracy in Armenia, however, in Armenia, in international circles, including in the U.S. State Department there were numerous accounts of backsliding of democracy in Armenia, and I am also talking about political prisoners in Armenia about restricting human rights and freedom of speech – the political prisoners continue to remain in jail – they are representatives of the previous government: Armenia Ashotyan, M. Aslanyan, Narek Malayan and so on. What can you say in this regard?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: There was a lot in your question, needless to say. So, I guess I will focus on the last part of your question about democracy. You know, I come at this question with a global perspective, and seeing very significant backsliding or setbacks for democracy all around the world. And where election results are challenged – even in my own country – where civil society are increasingly muzzled, where gatherings like this one cannot occur, where citizens like you cannot criticize their government for fear of getting locked up. And so, in no way am I here to give an outsider's report card on the status of every aspect of Armenia's democracy. 

But just taking a broader view, there have been significant developments in this country over the last five years that have entailed a broader liberalization for the media, for citizens. And, specifically when it comes to the fight against corruption, more transparency, an effort to get access to the assets that really belong to the people of Armenia, but that have been stolen in the past by people who did not put the interests of the Armenian people first. So, you know, it is absolutely, you know, valid for the citizens of this country to be raising concerns along the lines that you have described. I think our approach as USAID is not to back any particular individual or government here, but rather look to see, is there something that the United States can do to strengthen the institutions, to strengthen the checks and balances, to broaden the space where criticisms of this nature can be lodged. 

With regard to the peace process, I would just say that all of the issues that you have described are issues that will have to be addressed if there is to be a lasting peace. And, you know, I’m in Armenia, I'm really emphasizing the benefits of peace here in Armenia. But, the benefits would be very significant for the people of Azerbaijan as well. And I think there's even recent polling, public polling in Azerbaijan that indicates broad support from here. But the issues that you've raised, including the fate of prisoners, and the treatment of prisoners, and we call for humane treatment and the rights of those prisoners to be respected, and fair trials to be held, all of those issues will have to be addressed and progress will have to be made. 

QUESTION (via translation)The U.S. announces that they support Armenia’s energy security and independence. In his turn, the Secretary of Armenia’s Security Council Armen Grigoryan, who you met with, has said recently that Armenia is in the phase of having specific discussions with the U.S. regarding the construction of a new nuclear power station. Is there any certainty regarding this issue, are there discussions about building a modular nuclear power station and if yes, what is the timeline and what would the capacity of that power plant be? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think the best way to situate a response to your question is just to take note of the fact that in 2022, foreign energy sources supplied 73 percent of Armenia's energy feeds. Earlier, we had an exchange about the importance of resilience and independence and Armenia’s energy strategy, as you know, places not only solar energy and nuclear energy at the center, they have a much more diversified energy strategy. I think the technical discussions about how that nuclear energy is provided, what the sources of energy are, are still underway, and so I don't have any specific timeline for you. 

But from my understanding of the Armenian government's plan, USAID supports some of the analysis that undergirds the plan, but it’s the government's plan. My understanding is that, you know, doubling reliance on renewable energy by 2030 is what the Prime Minister has committed to doing. And they are still working through a timeline when it comes to nuclear energy at the heart of the plan.

Administrator Power Travels to Armenia - July 2024


Administrator Samantha Power traveled to Armenia from July 8 to July 11 to affirm the United States' deepening partnership with Armenia, highlight USAID's support for the Government of Armenia's reform agenda, and advance efforts to enhance Armenia's resilience.

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