By Lia Miller
Armenia is an ancient country with a rich and fascinating history. The country boasts some of the world’s oldest vineyards, vibrant and delicious cuisine, legendary hospitality, a beautiful landscape with world-class hiking, and internationally recognized biodiversity. Consistently included as one of the top travel destinations within popular publications such as Forbes and Condé Nast Traveler, Armenia was recently featured on the National Geographic’s “The Cool List: Celebrating the reasons to travel in 2020,” due to its accessible routes from major travel hubs. Located in the middle of the South Caucasus region between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, Armenia is truly situated at the crossroads where east meets west, which makes for a dynamic, unique, and colorful culture.
The capital and largest city, Yerevan, is one of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities, constructed 29 years before Rome. Yerevan was founded in 782 B.C. by Urartian King Argishti I, who named it Erebuni, even though the territory had already been settled. It had been in use since the fourth millennium B.C. After World War I, Yerevan became the 12th capital of Armenia and has remained the capital ever since. Situated along the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is the administrative, cultural, and industrial center of the country. It is also known as the “pink city” as a result of the rose-hued volcanic stone used to build many of the city’s buildings.
Mount Ararat—or Masis, as the Armenians affectionately refer to it—is Armenia’s national symbol and is known for the majestic views it offers. The volcanic mountain now lies in modern day Turkey making it difficult to access for Armenians. However, it remains in their hearts as a source of cultural and historic pride.
The Armenian people are known for their strong work ethic and resilience, and they are world-renowned for their crafting skills especially in carpet making, woodworking, stone carving, and wine and brandy cultivation, as well as their delicious cuisine. For example, Armenian carpet making has its roots in antiquity. Today, Armenians are extremely proud of their carpet-producing heritage and one can visit museums dedicated to the art with many historical examples. Additionally, Armenians stone carvings and “khachkars”—a traditional Armenian art form featuring a stone with the engraving of a cross as well as other intricate motifs—first appeared in the ninth century but are represented all over Armenia and the broader Caucasus region.
Armenians are also known for their delectable foods and cooking abilities. They are famous for their dolma—a hotly contested dish in the Caucasus region as to whose is the best and who invented it. An especially cherished food by Armenians is “hots” or bread, which is served in multiple different forms like lavash, a traditional flatbread, and matnakash, a thicker leavened bread.
An interesting fact about Armenia is that the game of chess is considered a national pastime. Chess was institutionalized in Armenia during the Soviet period and remains extremely popular in the country today. Children are taught chess as part of their educational curriculum, and Armenia is considered one of the strongest competitors in the international chess community.
The “Velvet Revolution” of 2018 launched Armenia on a path of transformational democratic reform. The country’s embrace of democracy represents the greatest strategic opportunity to advance U.S. interests and values in this country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new government under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan seeks to build democratic institutions, fight endemic corruption, reform the justice sector, and expand economic prosperity for all Armenians. The new government sees the United States as a key partner in achieving those goals. In response to this unique opportunity, Embassy Yerevan created the Positive Agenda. This guiding vision facilitates U.S. cooperation and collaboration with Armenia as they move towards a new democratic reality. The Positive Agenda guides the Mission’s steps in numerous sectors. These sectors include anti-corruption efforts, police and judicial reform, expanded educational opportunities and cultural preservation initiatives, creating a strong and growing Armenian economy ripe for foreign direct investment, and supporting a stable Armenia at peace with its regional neighbors.
Mission staff from the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and USAID are at the forefront of assisting the Armenian government in fighting corruption—a critical part of Embassy Yerevan’s Positive Agenda—through the establishment of three new organizations designed to prevent, investigate, and rule on corruption. USAID is taking on the prevention side of anti-corruption assistance through support for Armenia’s nascent Corruption Prevention Commission, which will be responsible for conducting risk assessments for ministries and public agencies, developing asset declarations and integrity checks for public officials, and communicating anti-corruption messaging to the Armenian people. INL is handling the investigative and judicial sides—through the establishment of a new anti-corruption investigative body and an anti-corruption court. INL is also the Armenian government’s strategic partner in another key embassy initiative—reforming the Armenian police into an efficient, transparent, and accountable law enforcement organization that respects human rights and embodies a service-oriented mentality.
The embassy also promotes the cultural preservation of Armenia’s architectural history. In the fall of 2019, Ambassador Lynne Tracy joined Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport Narine Khachaturyan, representatives of the Syunik region and the Meghri community to celebrate the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project in Meghri. A $510,000 grant funded the project through the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), making it the largest AFCP restoration project ever undertaken in Armenia. This three-year project involved the preservation of the most critically endangered parts of the Saint Hovhannes (St. John the Baptist) Church, a church of architectural, scientific, historical, and artistic significance. The project also included the restoration of the church’s rare, 17th-century frescoes, which portray an outstanding example of the Persian-Armenian art, a style unique to this region that was born out of the intertwining of these cultures throughout history.
“The United States government and the American people greatly respect Armenia’s rich history and heritage, and I am honored we could help restore and preserve the St. Hovhannes Church,” said Tracy during her remarks at the event. “Projects like this allow future generations to learn about the roots of Armenian culture, and the United States is proud to have been able to provide more than $1 million since 2005 to support the preservation of this culture through the Ambassadors Fund.”
Embassy Yerevan’s Consular Section focuses on helping Armenia fight corruption, supports international security, and works to strengthen Armenia’s economy by promoting responsible travel among Armenia’s traveling public. For a long time, international travel by Armenians has been dominated by two groups: temporary tourist travel by the elite of the old regime, and permanent departures of Armenians of all walks of life to seek work or build a new life in another country. The World Bank estimates that one million Armenians—one third of the population of Armenia—live outside of the country. While remittances from diaspora Armenians contribute to the country’s income and welfare, outmigration is also a drawback, reducing the working population and removing talented citizens from the domestic economy and society. The U.S. is a favored destination among Armenians in this context.
On April 20, Embassy Yerevan will celebrate the 15th anniversary of the American Corners program in Armenia, and 15 years of successful partnership with their partner libraries. The first American Corner was inaugurated in 2005 at the Yerevan City Central Library. Since then four more were established in Gyumri, Vanadzor, Kapan, and Charentsavan. From April 2005 to December 2019, the five American Corners and the embassy’s American Center (formerly known as the Information Resource Center located in the embassy in Yerevan), welcomed 687,321 visits and hosted more than 12,221 events, including English clubs, public presentations and lectures, podcasts, reading hours, film discussions, and maker space activities. From 2005 to 2019, patrons borrowed 301,163 books, 24,942 DVDs, and 100,250 journals and magazines. The American Corners program shows the constant growth of the community. It has become a wonderful way for the Mission to provide information about the United States and American society/culture to the Armenian people.
The embassy continues to collaborate with the Armenian government on new ways to protect the significant and impressive gains Armenia has made in developing its high-tech sector. The sector has achieved remarkable growth in recent years. The World Congress on Information Technology in October 2019 served as a clear sign of Armenia’s arrival on the world stage as a technological hub. Thousands of participants and tech sector icons descended on Yerevan to discuss the promises and perils of new technologies. Working with the government to fine-tune Armenians tech vision, the embassy is offering assistance and providing policy guidance and national strategies for issues such as cybersecurity, next-generation mobile networks, and artificial intelligence.
The U.S. Forest Service has been engaged in Armenia since 2010 and is focused on efforts to assist the government with forest management and wildfire response. Other efforts have focused on youth engagement, place-based service learning—which includes projects where youths typically learn about environmentalism devoted to a particular community usually where they live, reforestation and forest restoration, and sponsoring training for Armenians in the United States. Since 2011, the U.S. Forest Service has sponsored training for 23 Armenians in the United States on issues such as climate change, protected area management, watersheds, forest restoration, zoo management, and mining. In October 2019, the embassy welcomed Smokey Bear to Armenia, for his first-ever international trip. During his time in Yerevan, Smokey met with a wide range of audiences, spread his timeless message on the importance of personal responsibility for preventing unwanted fires, and shared his message with local media.
Recognizing the importance of having a strong and empowered civil society that can facilitate meaningful public debate and discourse, Embassy Yerevan is working to develop a program meant to improve the quality of economic journalism in Armenia. By building capacity among journalists to translate economic concepts into information, the embassy aims to improve public understanding of the government’s reform efforts, contribute to participatory, effective, and accountable governance, and ultimately promote inclusive and sustainable growth. In parallel, the embassy works in close concert with Armenia’s supreme audit institution to enhance the transparency and use of government financial audit findings by the public. This supports the government’s strong emphasis on fighting corruption and fostering greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability in the government’s operations. More effective and responsible fiscal management will create greater opportunities for investment and encourage sustainable economic growth in Armenia.
Maintaining a meaningful U.S. presence and longevity in the U.S.-Armenia relationship is at the heart of the embassy’s Positive Agenda. It continues to be the motivation behind the exceptional quality of work from all Mission sections and agencies.
Lia Miller is the public affairs section chief at Embassy Yerevan.