There is a new president in the White House, and Armenians have high hopes for American help as they try to manage a difficult post-war period. So why would Yerevan send an inexperienced political loyalist as its new ambassador to Washington?
That’s what a lot of people are asking in Yerevan, following news that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was mulling the appointment of the head of his faction in parliament, Lilit Makunts, as the country’s new envoy to the United States.
Ambassadorships have a long history in Armenia, like in a lot of other places, of being given to the politically favored. “This is a continuation of the bad old traditions,” complained Gevorg Gorgisyan of the opposition Bright Armenia party.
And the stakes now are especially high. Armenians weren’t happy with the amount of support they got from the West in last year’s war with Azerbaijan, in particular from a Trump White House that mostly ignored it. Now we need all the friends we can get.
Many here note that Azerbaijan’s current ambassador to Washington is a career diplomat with 12 years in the post and tons of connections. “Biden wants to restore the U.S.’s position in the Caucasus,” one political analyst said. “In our current situation, Armenian-American relations isn’t just an experiment where we can appoint Lilit Makunts and wait to see what happens. We need to send our best diplomat.”
Makunts, 37, taught English at a university before Pashinyan appointed her culture minister in 2018. Even then there were complaints she was unqualified; she responded in a Facebook post that “to all those who want to know what I have to do with culture, I say I am culture, culture is in me like it is in everyone.” Eventually she was elected to parliament and now heads Pashinyan’s faction there. Her reputation is as a loyalist; a standard epithet for her in the Armenian media is “Pashinyan’s English teacher.”
One widely shared cartoon played on the stereotypical job ad that asks for “English and computer skills.” In it, Pashinyan tells Makunts: “You know English; now you’ll learn computer skills and you can be ambassador to the U.S.”