By Tony Halpin
The celebrations and applause for Levon Ter-Petrosyan at first drowned the rumblings of discontent.
Largely unknown to the thousands of ordinary people who turned out to see Armenia’s new democratic leader, bitter disputes were breaking out over the conduct and achievements of the President’s first visit to the United States.
On the surface, the three-city trip was a joint effort by the Armenian Assembly, Armenian Democratic Liberal Organization, American Armenian International College, Armenian General Benevolent Union, and the Zoryan Institute.
Beneath, the Assembly was being accused of monopolizing the President, excluding other groups from the arrangements, and failing to deliver promised results.
“He was not treated well and exposed to a very insulting situation; I think the Assembly is responsible,” the ADL’s Central Committee Vice-Chairman Yervant Azadian said.
“We were totally ignorant of all the planning that happened and were not informed,” AAIC President Dr. Garbis Der Yeghiayan said.
“Probably their [the Assembly] intentions were meant to be good but the results don’t justify the timing of his visit to this country.”
For the Assembly, whose invitation Ter-Petrosyan accepted with just eight days’ notice, such criticisms are hard to accept.
Executive Director Ross Vartian said the President wanted to visit Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles, to achieve three clear objectives: To meet the Armenian-American community, to gain access to the American media, and to meet U.S. political leaders.
“We drew it up to his specifications. Someone had to do it and someone had to pay for it; we did both,” Vartian said. “We fulfilled our obligation to make sure that anybody in the community had access to him. I don’t see how anyone can assert that we were guarding him jealously and not allowing them access.”
“It was the President’s trip which we had the privilege of hosting. Scores of organizations had access to him in a period of eight days; I think the schedule speaks for itself,” he added.
Vartian believes the first objective was successfully met, given the pressure of time, largely through the heads of organizations meeting in New York and Hollywood Palladium rally in Los Angeles.
Too little lead time scuttled the chances of success for television coverage and limited radio exposure. But editorial board meetings were held with the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. The interest expressed by the nation’s major newspapers was described by Vartian as “a home run” and “extraordinary.”
But he conceded that success in meeting U.S. political leaders was “not as satisfactory,” attributing part of the difficulty to the Budget crisis in Washington D.C. Meetings with National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft at the White House and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders were held.
But an appointment with Vice-President Dan Quayle was missed, a hoped-for meeting with President Bush did not materialize, and there was no meeting with California Governor George Deukmejian – the highest ranking Armenian-American in elected office.
Both sides blamed the failure to meet Deukmejian to lack of available time. The Governor’s office was approached four days before Ter-Petrosyan’s visit to California on September 30, when the Governor was immersed in signing legislation before the legal deadline of October 1.
“We did not have time because of the pressure of business and couldn’t change the Governor’s schedule,” spokesman Bob Gore said.
“We offered to meet with the President in Fresno on Tuesday but that did not fit in with their schedule. It was just a matter of the schedules not being able to get together. There was no problem otherwise.”
Vartian said he had been “surprised” that Deukmejian could not meet Ter-Petrosyan, who left California on a Monday night “red-eye” flight back to New York.
“After a number of phone calls the final outcome was that he simply would not be able to meet. Up to September 30 Deukmejian had the same problem as the White House. Maybe on October 1 he was just physically exhausted,” Vartian said.
Ter-Petrosyan failed to keep an appointment with Vice-President Quayle because he was late arriving in Washington from a meeting with newspaper editors in New York. Efforts to regain contact with the Vice-President were halted by Ter-Petrosyan himself, Vartian said.
Washington political consultant Barry Zorthian, a former chairman of the Armenian Assembly Board Directors, saw the offer of a meeting with Quayle as a “big concession” by the Administration. Official U.S. policy prevented Ter-Petrosyan meeting Bush because Armenian is recognized not as a sovereign country but as part of the Soviet Union, with which America has diplomatic relations, argued Zorthian.
“There was a certain amount of naivete or lack of realism on the part of those who thought he would meet Bush or [Secretary of State James] Baker,” he said.
“I suspect he was told a meeting with Bush would be in the bag but whoever told him that was being unrealistic and not sensitive to U.S. policy.”
However, the Assembly has blamed President Bush for not meeting Ter-Petrosyan. It sent a letter to Bush describing the failure to meet as “inexplicable” after what Vartian said were verbal “assurances” from the State Department that Ter-Petrosyan and Bush would have a “spontaneous” get-together during his visit to the White House.
“Bush could have done it and chose not to do it for his own reasons,” Vartian said. “I think it was bad policy, bad politics, and certainly bad manners.”
Other organizations called it bad planning and typical of the way the whole trip was conducted.
“If they had a firm commitment from President Bush, I don’t think he would have failed in his commitment,” said Azadian. “Now it looks like there was no commitment and they were anticipating that by giving him a tourist’s view of the White House they could bump into the President or his wife or someone.”
Both Azadian and Dr. Der Yeghiayan believe the Assembly promised Ter-Petrosyan more than it could deliver in such short notice and failed to advise him properly of the difficulties. Both were surprised that the visit came so early and believe Ter-Petrosyan should have been told to delay his trip.
This would have allowed time for proper national committee of Armenian organizations to be set up which could have lobbied for an official government invitation and established an agenda of events fitting to Ter-Petrosyan’s status as Armenia’s president, they argue.
Azadian said his organization told the President in Armenia that the visit was too early and possibly counter-productive, “but he did not heed that remark.”
The ADL was never asked to participate in planning the visit, he said, calling the Assembly’s use of its name among the co-hosts “less than honest.”
Dr. Der Yeghiayan argued that the President would have delayed it “if he had known all the facts,” in order to achieve more tangible results during the visit.
“It wasn’t a 100 percent wasted opportunity. I’m sure he accomplished 15-20 percent of what he actually wanted to,” he said. “If I had been given only eight days to prepare his visit, I would have told him `please, we don’t want to embarrass you. Give us more time because we would like to plan for a better reception and a more professional approach.’
“I would have told him quite frankly,` we want you to succeed, we don’t want you to fail on this visit.'”
The sensitivity of the issue is reflected in the reaction of the AGBU. When asked to comment on the visit, AGBU President Louise Simone at first declined, then issued a statement saying it was “unfortunate that we were given such short notice on the President’s visit.”
“The President’s historic trip to the United States was ill timed and poorly prepared. It was unfortunate that instead of generating support and public interest for the work that lies ahead in Armenia, the Armenian Assembly chose to use the occasion to their own advantage. Community wide events of this magnitude should be planned in advance with a united effort, not for individual PR,” she added.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutiun – shared the belief of the other organizations that a presidential visit at this juncture was premature.
“Although on a popular level the visit succeeded in consolidating the ties with the homeland, politically it failed in introducing the head of the first democratically elected Armenian government to U.S. officials and economic leaders,” stated Kevork Santikian, chairman of the organization’s Western Regional Central Committee.
Saying it should have been better organized, Santikian, nonetheless, expressed the hope that the Armenian President would have a second visit in the near future. “It is very important that such an opportunity be used to the utmost to present Armenia’s new government to American political and business leaders in a more productive manner. The resources of all Armenian organizations are needed in such a case,” Santikian emphasized.
For Zoryan Institute Director Gerald Libaridian, the disputes are in danger of missing the real point of the visit – that it was the first by a legitimate democratic president to the Diaspora.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he agreed that the visit could have been arranged differently, but argued that Armenian groups which felt aggrieved should have transcended their concerns.
Dr. Nikit Ordjanian, chairman of the Armenian Center at Columbia University, shared this concern for a wider vision. He called the disputes “typical of our organizations – we don’t do things together.”
It seems clear that, far from uniting Armenian-Americans in celebration of their homeland’s new hope for the future, Ter-Petrosyan’s visit has intensified rivalries and left behind feelings of angry disappointment at opportunities missed.
Few have been willing to criticize the President directly. But the wisdom of embarking so hastily on a visit to the most important outside influence on the Kremlin concerning Armenia’s bid for independence has to be questioned.
If he and his advisors did not appreciate the planning and complex protocol necessary to make the visit to the United States a success, then they should have been told. This is where the Armenian Assembly seems most at fault. Failure to insist that the President’s stated goals required more time to achieve exposed Ter-Petrosyan to the risk of a wasted journey. With so many other organizations excluded from the planning, it is hard to see how he could have met a truly representative cross-section of the community here.
Even this criticism would have counted for less if Armenia’s cause had been advanced in the highest political circles. Instead, confusion reigns over whether President Bush intended to meet Ter-Petrosyan, Vice-President Quayle was stood up, and Governor Deukmejian was given a take-it-or-leave-it opportunity to shake hands.
Those who met Ter-Petrosyan in the United States were undoubtedly happy to see him. But not many could say that he received the red-carpet treatment befitting the President of a democratic republic.