Reflecting the influence of the Armenian community in the United States, the U.S. Congress is blocking yet another attempt by the White House to sizably cut long-running American assistance to Armenia. The small South Caucasus state is thus due to remain one of the world’s leading per-capita recipients of U.S. economic aid, more than $1.6 billion since 1992.
The House of Representatives voted on June 28 to approve its version of the U.S. foreign aid bill for the next fiscal year, which allocates $67.5 million for Armenia — up from the $55 million requested by the administration of President George W. Bush. The U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee raised the number to $75 million, the amount Armenia will receive in 2005.
Citing growing budgetary constraints, the Bush administration has steadily reduced the level of U.S. assistance to former Soviet republics in recent years. Armenia has been the least affected of them and has its million-strong Diaspora in America to thank for that. Armenian-American organizations were instrumental in the latest aid allocations that followed a familiar pattern. In 2003, for example, the Bush administration requested $45 million for Armenia before legislators raised the sum to $75 million.
One of the most powerful ethnic lobbies on Capitol Hill essentially consists of the Armenian Assembly of America, which is mostly sponsored by wealthy individuals, and the more nationalist Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) known for its well-organized grassroots structures. The two groups were behind the creation of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues in the late 1990s.
The caucus currently numbers 142 members, making it the largest bipartisan ethnic coalition in the House of Representatives. Most of those congressmen are from California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Massachusetts, the states with the highest concentration of Americans of Armenian descent. But there are also members who represent places like Indiana, Kentucky, or Oregon where the Armenian presence is minuscule.
One of the Armenian lobby’s key allies in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is also from Kentucky. McConnell is the Senate majority whip and chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. Both the Armenian Assembly and the ANCA personally thanked the ranking Republican for the latest aid allocation.
One of the two Armenian Caucus co-chairs, Representative Frank Pallone, says the Armenian-Americans have managed to pull together so many lawmakers because they “work very hard.” The New Jersey Democrat is bound to secure strong Armenian support for his plans to run for the Senate.
The U.S.-Armenian community may have built a strong support base in Congress, but its influence on the White House and the State Department remains much weaker. This situation exists in part because ethnic Armenians are mostly concentrated in the traditional Democratic strongholds where the outcome of the last two U.S. presidential elections was never in doubt. Bush didn’t have to woo ethnic Armenians simply because very few of them live in “swing states” like Florida and Ohio. His administration therefore has no qualms about its hitherto successful efforts to prevent a congressional resolution describing the 1915-18 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
Such a resolution has for decades been a key aim of Armenian lobbying activity. Some Armenian-American activists feel they can eventually overcome White House opposition by further expanding the Armenian Caucus and turning it into a House majority.
The Bush administration clearly had to reckon with the Armenian community’s clout when it included Armenia last year in the list of 17 developing nations eligible for additional multimillion-dollar assistance under Washington’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. Neighboring Georgia was the only other ex-Soviet state selected for the scheme, which is designed to promote political and economic reform around the world.
Georgia is increasingly emerging as a U.S. bulwark in the South Caucasus, due to its new leadership’s pro-Western foreign policy. Still, it may get less American economic aid in 2006 than Armenia, which continues to be seen as Russia’s key regional ally. Furthermore, close defense links with Moscow have not prevented Yerevan from securing over $20 million in U.S. military assistance since 2002. It is expected to make up at least $5.75 million in fiscal year 2006.
That assistance was the main condition for Congress’s decision in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks to allow the Bush administration to suspend the decade-long aid restrictions that had been imposed on Azerbaijan under Armenian-American pressure. Congress has also forced the administration to maintain parity in military funding to Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite the latter’s greater contribution to the U.S. war effort in Iraq. Armenian-American lobbyists say Yerevan’s highly unpopular decision to send a small army contingent to Iraq last January helped to neutralize senior Pentagon officials who question the wisdom of helping the Armenian military.
Azerbaijan has also been infuriated by the continuing provision of direct U.S. government aid to Karabakh, which will equal at least $3 million next year. Bypassing the Azerbaijani government, the money is mainly used for rebuilding homes and infrastructure destroyed during the 1991-94 Armenian-Azerbaijani war. Baku has repeatedly complained that the Americans thereby undermine its internationally recognized sovereignty over the Armenian-controlled territory.
“There is no way that any negotiation should result in Karabakh going back to Azerbaijan,” says Pallone. “Karabakh is an independent state and Karabakh must remain Armenian.” Years of successful Armenian lobbying have meant that many other U.S. lawmakers would also subscribe to this view.
(Statements by the Armenian Assembly of America, June 29, November 22, 2004; Statements by the Armenian National Committee of America, June 30, November 23, 2004; Interview with Frank Pallone, June 9, RFE/RL Armenia Report, December 9, 2003)