06/05/12 - Remarks offered on the Senate floor regarding trip to Armenia and Turkey - Mr. President, last week during the Senate recess I traveled overseas to four countries: Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia . It was a lot of ground to cover in 5 days in a region with considerable history and great, challenging issues.
Before I go further on the matter, let me say for the record how impressed I am with the men and women who work representing the United States overseas. The ambassadors, all of their staff, the consular service, the military attaches, and those working through the Department of Agriculture do us proud every day. Many make a personal sacrifice to represent our country. They are on the front line.
I thank Ambassador John Tefft in Ukraine, Ambassador Ricciardone in Turkey, Ambassador Bass in Georgia, and Ambassador Heffern in Armenia for their public service. They are a reminder of why the relatively small amount of money we spend on our diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts makes a big difference in the world.
A visit through this region is a reminder of the legacy of the Soviet Union and the challenges facing countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia as they try to rebuild independent and democratic nations. They inherited an environmental degradation that had been virtually destroyed by the Soviet Union, with broken economies built on a failed Soviet model and weak political and governing institutions. Sadly, these countries are not just trying to build modern nations, but must at times face continued and increased pressure from Russia on issues such as security and energy.
Ukraine is a good example when it comes to energy. They continue even though they face pressures from Russia to look west to the European Union, the United States, and NATO. They long to be in partnerships with the United States. We need to support that relationship, as well as the programs that help them transition away from the Soviet-era legacy.
There isn't enough time to cover all the issues facing these countries, but I will mention a few.
In Ukraine there has been a troubling development recently that threatens to overshadow so much of the economic and democratic progress they have made in recent decades. Specifically, this government currently in control has jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko over her alleged wrongdoing regarding a contract for natural gas with Russia. Many people have read about her detention and hunger strike.
One need not agree with policy decisions of former politicians--and I am not here to judge whether that gas contract was sound, but I can say in a democracy one should not make a practice of jailing political opponents. It kind of discourages people from running.
Doing so has the bad taste of Lukashenko's dictatorship in neighboring Belarus--not exactly the model a modern democratic Ukraine should follow. I have seen that firsthand where, the day after his election, the last dictator in Europe jailed all of his political opponents. Talk about discouraging people from running for office.
As long as no criminal activity occurred, in a democracy voters should decide at the ballot box if they did or didn't like policy decisions of an elected official.
I had a heart-breaking discussion with Tymoshenko's daughter Eugenia. I was deeply troubled by some of the stories I heard about her mother's detention.
I also had a hopeful meeting with Prime Minister Azarov and President Yanukovich on many issues of shared U.S. and Ukrainian cooperation, as well as the Tymoshenko detention. They are going to move on a timely basis to deal with this detention, and I assured them that the West was watching closely. I hope she will be released from her detention as quickly as possible.
My second stop was in Turkey. I have been there several times before. It is a growing power in a region and the world, a thriving Muslim democracy and a strong NATO partner of the United States.
Turkey most recently agreed to build an important NATO radar base on its soil, an installation that is absolutely critical in keeping an eye on Iran and its nuclear ambitions. It was a hard decision by Turkey to agree to this installation for NATO, and they made it. I thank them for that. It makes the world a safer place.
Turkey is hosting on its border more than 20,000 refugees who have fled the violence in Syria. I visited one of these refugee camps in the town of Kilis. Almost 10,000 refugees--more than 60 percent of them women and children--were given a good, clean safe place to stay there, education for the kids, as well as health care.
The Turkish Government needs to be commended for the generous hospitality and kindness they provided to their Syrian neighbors fleeing Syrian President Assad's brutality. I wonder if the United States would be as welcoming under those circumstances. Well, Turkey has been and they should be commended for it.
I spoke with many of the Syrians in the camp, and they told me deeply troubling stories about the violence they faced and why they had to leave everything behind and flee to a neighboring country. They were worried about family and friends who are still in Syria--particularly given the massacre reported last week in Houla.
The international community must do more to end the violence and foster a representative transition to democracy in Syria.
I have to note for the record that I saw my colleague, John McCain, on the Senate floor. He, Senator Lieberman, and others have been to the same place and have met with refugees and have strong feelings about Syria. I have to say, and I said this to the Syrian opposition I met with, I don't believe there is an appetite in America for invading another Muslim country or sending in our Army. We are war weary after more than 10 years at it. What we are looking for is an international organization or others who will join in the effort to stop Bashir al-Assad.
We encouraged Russia to step up. It has always had a special relationship with Syria. If Russia can bring the various parties together and end the violence and start a transition away from the brutality of Bashir al-Assad, it will be in the best interest of Russia and of the world.
The Arab League needs to raise its voice about solving those problems in Syria. We cannot let Assad bring any further embarrassment to the nations around the world. He has proven himself unworthy of the support of Russia or any country.
I urge Russia to join the United States and Turkey and others to find a timely way forward in Syria.
Georgia and Armenia are two other friends of the United States. In Georgia, President Saakashvili has made great progress on democratic and economic reforms. He was a leader in the Rose Revolution. His term is ending soon, and I hope the ensuing election will serve as a model for the region.
We should also not forget one important thing about Georgia. It is still dealing with the aftereffects of the 2008 war with Russia that resulted in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I investigated the South Ossetia borderline, and I saw the permanent Russian facility there. It is clear that Putin is trying to create a provocative environment within Georgia today.
We need to take steps to make sure the EU six-point plan is worked out--a plan that wasn't implemented after the war. I hope displaced persons and communities in South Ossetia and those in Abkhazia as well will have a chance to be reintegrated back into Georgia where they belong.
We need to take the steps to eliminate and reduce unnecessary human suffering. The EU has an important monitoring mission there, and I urge Russia and Georgia to work with them.
One last point about Georgia is that a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, stationed at Tbilisi in our Embassy, reported on what is a phenomenal thing going on. Georgia is not in NATO. President Obama has said they can be, and will be, and should be. At this moment, Georgia is contributing more forces and soldiers per capita than any nation on Earth to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. A lieutenant colonel in our Marine Corps, who is training Georgian soldiers, said they were great fighters. He went on to say: If you want to know how I can prove that, I am sending them to Afghanistan to stand next to our U.S. Marines and help us in the fight. That is as great an endorsement any marine could give to another fighting soldier.
Lastly, Armenia . There are so many Armenians across America who have made such a profound impact on our Nation--in fact, around the world. The diaspora of Armenian citizens is larger than the current population of that nation. They have lived through terrible brutality and loss of life. The genocide that occurred in the beginning of the last century may have claimed as many as 1.5 million lives as Armenians were displaced from eastern Turkey, and it is a legacy they will always remember.
I visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum to pay tribute and acknowledge the great loss of life that Armenia has suffered. There was a special tribute to Clara Barton, who may be remembered in American history for her work in establishing nursing and health care. She went late in her life--in her seventies--to Armenia to provide that same kind of assistance. She is given special recognition in the Government of Armenia today. The Armenian Genocide Memorial pays tribute to the many Armenians who died during this terrible period and the courageous leadership of those countries that went forward after their painful past.
I called on the President of Turkey, when I visited him, as I did several years ago, to work closely with the Armenians to try to resolve past differences and make an honest acknowledgement of the history between the two countries and try to work out a peaceful and cooperative relationship.
Mr. President, one encounter in Armenia in particular gave me hope that such a path forward is possible. I met with six Armenians who had participated in U.S.-supported cross-border reconciliation programs with Turkey. They were artists, journalists, business entrepreneurs, filmmakers, and high school students. Some of their stories were deeply moving.
One high school student named Victoria talked about the summer camp she visited in Vermont with Turkish high school counterparts and how they broke through stereotypes and started friendships. The filmmaker talked about joint films made with Turkish counterparts and then shown at the Istanbul Film Festival. An entrepreneur in Armenia talked about a service he set up to help businesspeople from Turkey work in Armenia and invest there.
These stories gave me hope that some of the painful wounds between these countries can be healed.
Let me close by saying what a reminder these countries are of the importance still played by American leadership all over the world. At a time with so many economic and security challenges around the world, now is not the time for the United States to retreat from the global stage.
I support the President's ending of the war in Iraq. I believe we should remove our troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. I know we have to remain engaged. The world still looks to us for leadership and values that they can build their countries' future on as well.
I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.
08/11 - Did not submit any QFRs of Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone.
07/11 - Did not submit any QFRs of Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern.