Led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the contingent of impeachment investigators in Congress continue to garner headlines over the probe into the administration’s alleged corruption and solicitation of foreign interference. But perhaps Schiff and his colleagues should first clean their own house.
Flying well under the radar of the ongoing impeachment frenzy was the news that the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund (Armenia Fund) recently raised a record-low $10 million during its annual telethon a year after the arrest of its director, Ara Vardanyan, on charges of embezzlement and misuse of funds. The same telethon raised $11.1 million in 2018, $12.5 million in 2017, $15.4 million in 2016, and $35 million back in 2008. Notice a pattern?
The declining fund’s supporters and telethon guests over the years include House Democrats like Reps. Schiff, Jackie Speier (CA), Frank Pallone (NJ), Tulsi Gabbard (HI), and Brad Sherman (CA), among others. All are highly vocal in the impeachment conversation. (Gabbard initially expressed hesitation about impeachment, but later changed course.) Yet their backing of the Armenia Fund could have the makings of its own foreign interference scandal.
The problems begin with the Armenia Fund’s history. Established by Armenian presidential decree in 1992 and setting up shop in Los Angeles in 1994, the fund calls itself a “humanitarian organization serving the needs of the Republic of Armenia and the Artsakh Republic” that carries out a mission “to connect the people of Armenia with the worldwide Armenian Diaspora to create a better homeland for the Armenian nation.” The term “Artsakh” refers to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani territory that several U.N. resolutions describe as being occupied by Armenia. Meanwhile, calling Nagorno-Karabakh a “republic” contradicts U.S. State Department policy, which doesn’t recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country and holds that the territory’s future status “is a matter of negotiation between the parties.”
For its congressional advocates, the Armenia Fund poses a unique dilemma: How can Democrats on the one hand target President Trump’s associates in the impeachment process over their alleged activities as unregistered foreign agents, but on the other hand ignore that a foreign government-established fund whose board president is Armenia’s own president also remains unregistered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act?
While the Armenia Fund spotlights its work on infrastructure projects such as “schools, roads, hospitals, and community centers,” it is far from the innocuous “humanitarian” group it purports to be. The fund’s affiliates include the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), two political lobbies that campaign in Congress for greater American funding of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. At their core, the Armenian lobbies’ activities serve to drive Armenia and Azerbaijan further away from peace, including through the ANCA’s rejection of the Madrid Principles.
The July 2018 arrest of Armenia Fund leader Vardanyan exposed the corruption at an organization that was already deceiving the public as a political front group. The fund’s declining fundraising mirrors the broader decline of Armenia, arguably the least independent of the post-Soviet states. Armenia has a declining population that exhibits what a Gallup poll has recorded as the world’s greatest prevalence of anger. That anger results from Armenia’s floundering, inflation-plagued economy and a so-called “Velvet Revolution” that has failed to deliver on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s promises of sweeping changes. Namely, Pashinyan has overseen the persistence of both Moscow’s well-documented influence over Yerevan and Armenia’s intransigence in the peace process with Azerbaijan.
Can Armenia turn around its economic malaise and extract itself from Russia’s orbit? Progress will likely be elusive as long as Armenia remains transfixed by its decades-long conflict with Azerbaijan. For the Armenian people, depending on the financial support of controversy-ridden outside groups such as the Armenia Fund will only breed more corruption and disappointment, while relying on the advocacy of the ANCA will continue to damage prospects for peace.
Simultaneously, House Democrats have done the Armenian people no favors by supporting the Armenia Fund and ANCA. Now, as they lead the charge on impeachment, it’s only fair to call out their hypocrisy. How can they stand against alleged presidential corruption when for years they backed an Armenian Diaspora telethon which has been exposed for its corruption? (During those same years, Armenia’s consul general in Los Angeles was a Russian citizen and notorious oligarch.) And how can they claim to be advocates for peace when they amplify the ANCA’s talking points, which are antithetical to peace?
It should come as no surprise to see such doublespeak coming from politicians like Schiff, the face of the impeachment probe who is entangled in his own Ukraine scandal; Gabbard, the notoriously pro-Assad presidential candidate; and Pallone, who in October landed in Nagorno-Karabakh on the Armenian government’s own military helicopter to urge the end of security assistance to a U.S. ally, Azerbaijan.
Until they distance themselves from the Armenian-American fundraising and lobbying apparatus, these lawmakers have virtually no credibility as voices in the debate on foreign influence and impeachment.