Armenia: Us Envoy Tries To Build Stronger Diaspora Connections

by Liana Aghajanian
Dec 19 2012

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.

Editor’s note: Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer based in Los

From: Baghdasarian