Armenia in Turmoil
Armenia in Turmoil


by John Hughes

As Armenia struggles yet to secure her place on the international map of importance and relevance, the 33 days from February 19 to March 22 sent a redundant message to the outside world that she remains a troubled teenaged republic.

Even before Election Day, some allies were not happy with how the campaign process was being conducted.

Bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the campaign of Prime Minister Serge Sargsyan for using the administrative resources afforded by his government position for the purpose of securing the presidency. Even before that, the United States was troubled by indications that Armenia's performance on issues of civic responsibility (some related to campaigning) were a threat to continued US support, especially as it concerned Armenia's proposed share (about $236 million) of the Millennium Challenge Account—a fund intended to help reduce poverty and improve infrastructure in the provinces.

In an interview in late March, United States Charge d'Affaires Joseph Pennington said that even before the charges of voting fraud of February 19 and the subsequent unrest of March 1, "frankly there already were concerns" by his government over Armenia's behavior.

Pennington, the top US diplomat in Armenia (while awaiting appointment of an ambassador), also said: "In terms of democratization, we had a very clear idea of where we would like to see Armenia go, and I think that was shared by most Armenians."

The diplomat's use of past tense may not have been intentional, but it reflects what has been a typical response of the international community in countries protective of their own reputations regarding development of civil society and human rights.

Within days after the election (and before March 1), president-elect Sargsyan received immediate congratulations from the presidents of France, Russia, Georgia, Belarus and others. Germany, Italy, India, Israel, the United Kingdom, Japan, NATO and the European Commission saved their congratulatory messages until Inauguration Day, April 9.

As of this magazine's mid-April content deadline, US President George W. Bush had not yet congratulated Armenia's new president, breaking a pattern that included congratulatory greetings to Robert Kocharian on the day of his 2003 inauguration.

The failure to observe formal courtesy is not a matter of oversight on the part of a lame- duck president with plenty else on his plate. The absence of a message was itself a statement that the US State Department is unhappy with Armenia's performance.

Washington, D.C. appears particularly displeased that $1.8 billion in aid to Armenia since independence hasn't bought either sufficient democratic reform, or the level of allegiance that Armenia is now showing to Moscow.

While underscoring Armenia's need to "reverse the trend" of its present and recent variation on democracy, Pennington dismissed a suggestion that money from America has been spent in vain. He mentioned health-care improvement and banking reform among institutional areas in which the US has made a difference.

But making a difference is not the same as making a democracy and, in that regard, the patience of the US is strained. "We want to give the authorities the chance to reverse this situation," Pennington said.

Pennington's State Department senior, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, had a much tougher message for President Sargsyan when he represented his government at the inauguration in Yerevan.

"We don't want to burn any bridges," Bryza said. "But we do want to be clear in signaling that we think that the seriousness of the current situation is profound. We need to see signs that the momentum of democracy and political and economic freedom is being restored."

Like a schoolmarm warning a rowdy pupil, Bryza said congratulations from Bush might be expected only "as the people of Armenia demonstrate that they are increasingly comfortable with the direction in which the country is moving."

The direction on the minds of North American and European human rights agencies is to see improvement in the voting process itself, but more so in the way Armenian authorities react when protests are raised by the electorate.

Criticism of Robert Kocharian's imposed state of emergency came quickly and continued to be evaluated by international bodies.

Foreign agencies found it especially troubling that, during the clampdown on public and media freedoms, Armenia's National Assembly approved Kocharian's proposed legislation that severely restricts public gatherings. While Kocharian said amendments were necessary to avoid a repeat of the March 1 violence, the revision of law was seen by citizenry and outside observers as a direct repression of oppositionists and in violation of Armenia's compliance with Council of Europe (CoE) mandates for freedom of expression.

While endorsing the intention of the law, even staunch government head Assembly Speaker Tigran Torosian said the amendments were "not ideal."

From Strasbourg and Warsaw, homes of the OSCE and CoE, came much harsher evaluations.

A joint opinion issued by the OSCE's Venice Commission and its Expert Panel on Freedom of Assembly said the advisory groups "do not consider the proposed amendments to be acceptable, to the extent that they restrict further the right of assembly in a significant fashion".

Calling on new president Sargsyan for swift action to undo the impact of the state of emergency, New York's Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it "considers the amendment incompatible with Armenia's obligations to respect freedom of assembly under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The government denied numerous opposition requests to hold public rallies, and Human Rights Watch documented the brief detention of at least 90 people who participated in peaceful 'public walks' organized by political opposition supporters."

"The new Armenian leader is facing serious challenges," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "He should take decisive steps to investigate the excessive use of police force and lift restrictions on freedom of assembly." Of equal concern have been the aggressively executed arrests of more than 100, and double the number of detainments that have resulted from Armenia's notorious 33 days and more.

A delegation representing the Council of Europe visited Armenia in early April and echoed the harsh reaction of like-minded groups. "We stand behind the calls from many international organizations that those who were arrested since March 1 in conjunction with political activities should be released," said Per Sjogren, speaking for the delegation.

Observation and criticism also came from Brussels, where the International Crisis Group surmised that events following February 19 have created "a deep rift in society."

"Armenia's democracy has, in most respects, been in retreat for over a decade, with flawed elections, concentration of power in the hands of the executive and an army and security services which enjoy virtual impunity," said Magdalena Frichova, Crisis Group's Caucasus Project Director. "These latest events further worsen a situation that has been deteriorating for far too long."

Originally published in the April 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.