Being on the job for just over a month, Armenia’s new ambassador to the US is eager to hit the ground running and boost ties between Yerevan and Washington.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English from the Armenian Embassy in Washington, Lilit Makunts, the first female envoy from Yerevan to the US, laid out her goals and ambitions as her country’s new ambassador.
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The 37-year-old comes to Washington after stints as the majority leader in Armenia’s parliament and as the culture minister.
Armenia had seen an economic boom in recent years, but the coronavirus pandemic and the biggest escalation of fighting with neighboring Azerbaijan in 2020 saw that surge come to a halt.
“We are still recovering, mentally and economically, from the war,” Makunts said.
Armenia and its fierce rival Azerbaijan engaged in a six-week war last year over a dispute about the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which Armenia has held for decades.
Russia brokered a peace deal that was signed between Armenia’s PM Nikol Pashinyan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The agreement saw Baku gain control over specific parts of the region, and Pashinyan called the deal “incredibly painful both for our people and for me.”Tensions ran high on the streets of Armenia following the treaty, with thousands of protesters demanding the premier’s resignation.
Pashinyan called for early elections, which were held in June, and he was once again elected.
Armenia is landlocked between Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan and has hostile relations with the latter two.
Turkey played a crucial role in the six-week war providing Azerbaijan drone technologies, capabilities, and intelligence.
The Ottoman Turks were responsible for the officially recognized 1915 Armenian Genocide with the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.
This year, the United States became the latest country to acknowledge that it was indeed Genocide, but Turkey continues to deny culpability.
Moving forward, Makunts said that the best way to resolve the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan is through the OSCE Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by the US, France and Russia.
“The co-chairs have been very positive about the work of the group and the need to reach a solution,” she said.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s commitment to the OSCE Minsk Group. “The United States remains committed to helping the sides negotiate a long-term political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and address the humanitarian impact of the fighting, including the release of all detainees, accounting for those missing, and the full and expeditious exchange of remains,” he said in a statement marking Armenia’s 30th anniversary of independence.Makunts praised statements from the US State Department after the Nagorno-Karabakh war for the need for prisoners of war to be returned.
“In 1994, when we won (the first Nagorno-Karabakh War), we returned all POWs. It is ridiculous for them [Azerbaijan] to continue holding Armenian POWs,” Makunts said.
There are also Armenians who were displaced or forced to flee by Azeri fighters and troops during last year’s conflict.
Now, the Armenian government is footing the bill and providing the internally displaced with much-needed aid.
“We are not asking for international aid in this matter, and it is an Armenian cause,” Makunts said and added that instead, it is asking for economic and security support in the form of peace and demarcated borders with Azerbaijan.
Building friends and influencing people
“Armenia is proud of its democracy,” Makunts said. “And after the war [last year], we decided that we needed to increase our diplomatic efforts in major capitals around the world.”
Makunts, a political appointee, took over for Varuzhan Nersesyan, who was dispatched to London as the new Armenian ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Some members of the Armenian diaspora and opposition lawmakers have criticized Pashinyan’s move to replace Nersesyan, a career diplomat, with a political appointee. Nevertheless, Makunts says political appointments are made in most countries and that her work will have to prove that she was the right choice.
Following the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Armenia hopes to garner international support to demarcate its borders and have peace. “That’s what we want: peace. We’ve never initiated an attack on any country, and we don’t plan to do so,” she said.
Since arriving in the US, Makunts has met with officials from the State Department, Congress and Senate.But she is not permitted to meet with White House officials, including the National Security Council, until her credentials are presented to US President Joe Biden.
This process typically takes between one to three months.
The ambassador has been active meeting other officials and advisors in the DC-based government policy world.
She has met with Laura Cooper at the Pentagon, who is currently Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. Cooper is also the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, which includes Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“We had a very productive meeting and discussed military-political bilateral relations,” Makunts tweeted on Monday.
Derek Mitchell, President of National Democratic Institute (NDI), Congressman Frank Pallone and Congresswoman Jackie Speier are others that Makunts has met with so far.
Once Makunts has her credentials in place, she says she will begin to arrange bilateral visits to the two countries for meetings between US and Armenian officials.