Senators question State Dept. official's Armenia record (updated)

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Thursday July 22, 2010

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza in Yerevan, April 2008. . Photolure

Washington - Matt Bryza, nominee to become U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, testified before Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 22, denying charges of conflict of interest and bias and pledging impartiality with regard to the Karabakh peace process.

But the Armenian National Committee of America found Bryza's answers unconvincing.

"The testimony unfortunately raised more questions than it answered, underscoring our longstanding concern that he is not the right person to represent U.S. in Azerbaijan," ANCA's Aram Hamparian said in a statement to the media. (For the full listing of concerns expressed by ANCA follow this link.)

On August 3, Politico.com reported that Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) expressed concerns over Bryza's responses, delaying a committee vote on his nomination until after the August recess.

Based on published reports and The Armenian Reporter's off the record conversations with half a dozen experts concerns over Bryza's nominations are not limited to those expressed by Armenian Americans.

Congressional grilling

Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), members of the Foreign Relations Committee asked most questions and focused on U.S. policy in Karabakh. (As part of the exchange it was also revealed that Menendez met Bryza the day before the hearing to discuss some of the senator's concerns ahead of the formal hearing.)

Senators' questions referred to the delayed and muted U.S. reaction to Azerbaijan's destruction of an ancient Armenian cemetery in Nakhichevan in 2005, Bryza's 2008 comments highlighting Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and State Department's position on U.S. sanctions against Azerbaijan - known as Section 907 - in light of the Azerbaijani-initiated skirmish in Karabakh last month.

Citing Congressional Research Service (CRS), Sen. Boxer also asked why U.S. aid programs in Karabakh were limited to an average of $2 million a year, even though Congress allocated about $8 million annually.

Bryza confirmed lower than allocated spending but did not explain it. Instead he said that he supported disbursal of all allocated funds, noting that they have gone for de-mining, housing, schools and water supply projects. In response to senator's request, Bryza promised a detailed report on the aid program.

He also blamed Azerbaijan for the violation of the cease-fire regime last month, confirming that "there was an Azerbaijani move across the Line of Contact" to which Armenians responded.

But he also added that the presidential authority to waive Azerbaijan's sanctions was beneficial for U.S. security programs and that it was "up to Congress" whether to keep Section 907.

While criticizing its officials' continuing threats to use force in Karabakh, Bryza said that in his assessment Azerbaijan remains committed to the peace process.

Speaking in references to his comments on territorial integrity, Bryza claimed that he was only following the policy language used by Vice President Richard Cheney in September 2008. (In fact, Bryza first made similar comments in August, shortly after the Georgia war and before Cheney.)

Bryza further pledged not to give preference to territorial integrity at the expense of two other principles which U.S. policy language references with regard to Karabakh: self-determination and non-use of force.

On Nakhichevan destruction, Bryza recalled that he immediately contacted Azerbaijani officials demanding an investigation, but claimed that more time (more than three months) was needed for a proper assessment for what he called a "horrendous incident." He promised to work to protect any remaining Armenian heritage sites in Azerbaijan.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who chaired the hearing, referred to The Washington Times report that cited close ties between Bryza and senior Azerbaijani officials and allegations of potential conflict of interest. She also raised the issue of Azerbaijani regime's crackdown on its opponents.

Bryza responded that his finances have been thoroughly investigated as part of the nomination process and no improprieties were found. He also denied an Azerbaijani media report that claimed that his wedding expenses were covered by Azerbaijani officials. (Azerbaijani journalist who originally made the claim was subsequently violently assaulted and has since fled abroad.)

(In its August 3 press release ANCA reported that Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter to the State Department raising questions about Bryza's nomination; additional questions for Bryza came from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) following the hearing.)

For his part, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) argued for centrality of U.S. energy and security priorities in the region that include improving Azerbaijan's coast guard capabilities. He praised Bryza's record and urged his prompt confirmation.

Bryza has continuously dealt with U.S. policy in the South Caucasus since 1997, when he became deputy U.S. envoy for Caspian energy issues.

From 2001 to 2005 he was director for Greece, Turkey and Caucasus at the National Security Council. And from 2005 to 2009 - Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the same region; from 2006 to 2009 he was also the U.S. envoy for Karabakh peace talks.

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