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ARMENIA: US OFFICIALS SAY YEREVAN RISKS LOSING DEVELOPMENT FUNDS
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Armenia could lose US economic support if it does not quickly take action to promote a "national dialogue," US legislators and administration officials are cautioning.
Washington holds the Armenian government responsible for the March 1 clashes that resulted in the deaths of at least 10 people, said Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia. "Although we may never know who was ultimately responsible for triggering the violence … it is the responsibility of the government to avoid the use of lethal force, even when peaceful protests descend into violent clashes," Bryza said while testifying April 17 at a hearing of the US Helsinki Commission. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Although a controversial state of emergency ended 20 days after it was imposed, several of its restrictions were written into law, in particular limitations on the right of assembly. In addition, tax authorities have been investigating opposition newspapers, police presence is heavy, and the authorities continue to arrest opposition activists across the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"We call for the impartial investigation and prosecution of anyone who used violence, on either side," Bryza said. "We seek full restoration of all basic freedoms in both law and practice. We seek a national dialogue between the government, opposition, and civil society leaders to chart new electoral reforms and perhaps conclude a ‘contract for democracy’ that will ensure freedom of assembly in exchange for a pledge to protest lawfully and peacefully. Those who have been arrested for political reasons must be released. And we seek renewed and dramatic steps by the government of Armenia to resurrect democratic reforms that the past two months demonstrate are so vitally needed."
Armenia is in line for $235 million in aid as part of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation program, which rewards developing countries for implementing democratic and free-market reforms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The head of the MCC has written Armenia’s president, Robert Kocharian, suggesting that the crisis is endangering Armenia’s aid.
"We are disappointed that the results of that reform effort have been mixed – and in the wake of the tragic violence that followed the February election – below the MCC criteria," Bryza said. "I’m not here to issue empty threats, or to sound threatening. But the reality is that the MCC is a performance-based program."
Although Bryza attended Sarkisian’s inauguration, President George W. Bush has not written a letter congratulating him, as is customary. "I do sense from my colleagues at the White House that they – we all – share the desire to see dramatic steps to restore democratic momentum in Armenia and we are committed to doing everything we can to elicit and support such steps," Bryza said.
Two Armenians also testified at the hearing: Arman Grigorian, an adviser to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian, and Vigen Sarkisian, an assistant to the Serzh Sarkisian.
The commission’s chairman, Representative Alcee Hastings (a Democrat from Florida) did not ask any questions of either of the witnesses but instead lectured both on the need to resolve Armenia’s problems. To the opposition, Hastings said: "If you have proof that people are political prisoners, then that proof needs to be put forth. And if you accuse people of murder, you ought to be able to back up what you’re saying. And if I turn to you, Mr. Sarkisian, and you tell me that there are no political prisoners, then I will tell you that you are out of your ever-loving mind. Because there are."
"All of y’all need to get grown up," he continued. "Armenia doesn’t need American intervention or European intervention – what it needs are Armenian citizens to come to terms with their own reality and move your nation forward. And that makes it much easier for me and others to ask for appropriations for infrastructure and economic development and all of those things if we know that human rights are protected, if we know that civil liberties are protected, if we know that media rights are protected."
The hearing also touched on other ongoing issues in Armenia. Representative Chris Smith (a Republican from New Jersey), the co-chair of the commission, asked Bryza about an apparent escalation in bellicose rhetoric and military spending coming from Azerbaijan. Smith wondered whether Baku is considering trying to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force. Bryza dismissed the rhetoric as merely for domestic political consumption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Leverage, bargaining, is part of the negotiation. Belligerent military threats are something nobody wants to hear, we complain about them, we urge President [Ilham] Aliyev to reduce tension to make it easier for there to be a solution," Bryza responded. "His statements reflect politics in Azerbaijan. There is a large number of Azerbaijani citizens who favor armed conflict to regain Nagorno-Karabakh. Whether we like it or not, people think that way, and President Aliyev’s statements reflect that sentiment."
Pressed by Smith, Bryza declined to publicly say what penalty Azerbaijan might incur from Washington if it were to initiate military action. "I wouldn’t want to speculate on that because all of the various scenarios are so unpredictable, but what I can say is that it’s clear that any resumption of armed hostility in or around Nagorno-Karabakh would be tragic," he said.
Smith drew a parallel to Yugoslavia in 1991 and said that the West’s feeble response to Serbian invasions of Slovenia and Croatia emboldened Serbia to continue its attacks. "I think a predictable penalty at least needs to be on the drawing board if hostilities are instigated by Azerbaijan. … I’m very worried about what’s going on here," he said.
Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Armenia's government has disappointed its people yet another time.
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