The US ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, is wrapping up a “listening tour” that featured meetings with Diaspora leaders in cities across the United States. Heffern’s mission was aimed primarily at encouraging the Armenian Diaspora in the United States to join in governmental efforts to strengthen Yerevan’s connections to the West.
Heffern’s tour, which was set to conclude on December 19, took him to most major US cities that have sizable Armenian-American populations, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York. At every stop, the ambassador promoted trade opportunities. And touting Armenia’s IT sector as a potential area of interest for US investment, the ambassador also made an appearance at the 2012 ArmTech Congress, a 'global high tech networking platform' of the Republic of Armenia. The event was held in Silicon Valley this year.
“We are very anxious and active in identifying those partners, in the government, in civil society, all the political parties, private sector, the press, international partners, diaspora and in the diplomatic community that share our values and that want to push Armenia in the right direction,” Heffern said during his Los Angeles-area visit on December 6.
The mission was not an easy sell for Heffern. Armenia’s troubled track record on investment projects involving Armenian-American entrepreneurs has left many skittish. The country still struggles with a lack of transparency in its judicial, tax and customs systems, while an oligarchic atmosphere has fostered monopolistic tendencies, discouraged competition and left economic power in the hands of a few. Under such conditions, many small and medium businesses have suffered.
An ongoing legal case highlights the Diaspora dilemma. It involves Edmond Khudyan, president of Arin Capital & Investment Corp, based in Glendale, California. He is pressing charges against two stakeholders in a Yerevan project that was handled by a local Arin affiliate. The pair is alleged to have siphoned off upwards of $8.5 million in cash and assets from the company. In an open letter to Heffern, dated October 26, Khudyan asked for the US Embassy’s help in promoting a fair legal process.
“Considering that the Armenian judicial system does not seem to be working, and I have been left powerless to defend myself and my interests, I hope to have US Embassy’s active follow-up and oversight of my ongoing judicial struggle against all parties involved,” the letter stated. “We are dealing with a well organized criminal group which knows how to commit crime and steal, operating thought high ranking officials, and their family members, who have the power to influence and obtain favorable court decisions and avoid prosecution.”
During his tour, Heffern said the US government was committed to promoting systematic changes in Armenia that would remove obstacles to investment. “The point is to fix the system so that all American investors, all Armenian investors and all European investors play by the same rules,” he said.
Edvin Minassian – a former chair of the Armenian Bar Association, who had a private meeting with Heffern in Los Angeles – agreed that the Armenian IT sector held out promise. But he too acknowledged the need for substantive changes. “We want them to have courts that function fairly, public servants that are not corrupt and have an economy that prospers,” he said.
The development potential of the country’s IT sector is not threatened by rule-of-law issues alone. Tech companies in Armenia have trouble retaining qualified workers, said Al Eisaian, an IT entrepreneur from Los Angeles who has established several start-up ventures in the country. “The reason for their emigration is not financial: I have been told by these young professionals that they are moving because they do not feel their government is representing them properly; they are very much concerned with environmental issues,” he said.
Armenia's mining industry has seen considerable foreign investment in recent years, though activists have warned the health risks and hazards associated with open pit mining can be disastrous for the small country.
Heffern's tour also attempted to promote openings for Armenia to the outside world. At present the country is hemmed in on two sides by two hostile states – Turkey and Azerbaijan. To the south, meanwhile, Iran represents a “risky situation,” Heffern said. The country’s only reliable trade opening is to Russia via Georgia.
“Armenia needs options,” Heffern said December 6. “No country can be totally dependent on one border. No country can be totally dependent on one partner.”
To that end, Heffern sounded out Diaspora members on the possibility of reviving the moribund normalization protocols signed by Armenia and Turkey back in 2009. Heffern assured skeptical Diaspora members that the United States is opposed to Ankara stated position of linking a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement with the implementation and ratification of the protocols.
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.