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Western Election Criticism Heralds No Sanctions Against Armenia

By Emil Danielyan
When a small struggling nation faces as much international criticism as Armenia did in the last four weeks, its rulers should presumably brace themselves for serious trouble coming from abroad. Especially after profoundly failing what was widely seen as a crucial test of their democratic credentials.

But surprisingly, little appears to seriously threaten President Robert Kocharian on the external front. His controversial reelection may have been harshly criticized by the West, but will hardly lead to the kind of punitive action that could hit hard his regime. Multimillion-dollar aide from the United States and Europe, on which Armenia is heavily dependent, will continue to pour in, and Kocharian will avoid the fate of ex-Soviet strongmen like Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus or Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov ostracized by the international community.

And yet Yerevan’s failure to hold a free and fair election will not remain without consequences. Though not as tangible as economic sanctions, they will have a negative long-term impact on Armenia’s international standing. The so-called “European direction” of Armenian foreign policy will likely get the first blow.

So frequent had been Armenian leaders’ assurances that Armenia is an integral part of Europe and is committed to embracing its values that they had heightened Western expectations of political reform in the Caucasus state. Hence, the depth of American and European disappointment with the authorities’ handling of the presidential election.

“There was a feeling that Armenia is a sophisticated nation, but the way in which the election was conducted was primitive,” said one Western diplomat in Yerevan. “If there was going to be vote manipulation, you wouldn’t expect it to be so crude; you wouldn’t expect to witness so much ballot stuffing.”

The diplomat dismissed as “nonsense” Kocharian’s complaints that the Europeans should have used other, less strict standards in assessing the Armenian election. “They themselves wanted us to judge them by the European standards and those are the same for everyone,” he said.

Kocharian’s extraordinary remarks -- aimed at somehow rationalizing the vote irregularities which he admitted were “numerous” -- were indicative of a broader mood reigning in the Armenian corridors of power these days. Kocharian’s most trusted lieutenant, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, he said bluntly on March 7 that the West’s ideas of democracy are not necessarily identical with the Armenian leadership’s. Another top presidential loyalist, Tigran Torosian, went farther, stressing in a newspaper interview that Europe can not teach Armenia lessons of democracy because it was the birthplace of Nazism and Fascism.

Such comments, however shocking they are, do not herald the start of an open confrontation between Armenia and the West. At least in the short run. Diplomats say each Western country will decide separately how to deal with Yerevan after the presidential ballot. As things stand now, none of them is even considering political or economic sanctions.

The U.S., Armenia’s number one donor, has already made it clear that it will continue to “work with” Kocharian’s administration despite its “deep disappointment” with the electoral fraud. “Certainly, the United States is not looking to extract some price or punishment out of this,” U.S. Ambassador John Ordway explained this week. “What we want is to continue to develop civil society and democracy here. So our focus will continue to be a positive one, not a negative one.”

France took an even more positive approach, promptly congratulating Kocharian on his disputed victory. In a written message to his Armenian counterpart, French President Jacques Chirac merely expressed a “desire” that Armenia follow the path of democratization in the next five years.

As co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, both the U.S. and France are closely involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and need Armenia’s cooperation in achieving a peaceful settlement of the conflict. They are also well aware that the ruling regime in neighboring Azerbaijan is hardly more democratic. Kocharian mentioned this fact on Wednesday when he argued that the election criticism will not weaken the Armenian side in Karabakh peace talks.

Kocharian is apparently safe in the knowledge that failure to hold democratic elections is not a sufficient condition for alienating Paris and Washington. More important for the latter is the question of whether he now has a mandate to press ahead with an unpopular compromise solution to the Karabakh dispute. Ordway, for example, noted that a clean vote would have put the Armenian authorities in “a better position” to cut a peace deal with Azerbaijan.

This, however, does not mean that Yerevan will easily get away with its handling of the election. For one thing, Armenian officials will find it more difficult to continue their “complementary” foreign policy of having simultaneously warm relations with Russia and the West. Integration into various European structures is a key element of that line.

The Council of Europe, which admitted Armenia two years ago on the condition of its democratization, has already promised unspecified “consequences” for its leadership in the coming months. The European Union is also expected to react negatively to the recent developments.

“Armenia’s international standing has definitely been lessened, and there will now be a more skeptical look at the country from the European side,” said a Western diplomat.

Armenian leaders, the diplomat said, will not be frequent guests in major European capitals and will see fewer top European officials visiting Yerevan. In addition, he added, Western donors could now set tougher conditions for further loans and grants to the Armenian government. Especially for initiatives dealing with democratization, good governance and the fight against corruption.

The West will closely follow the May parliamentary elections in Armenia to see whether its government has addressed its concerns. But so far there have been few indications that the legislative polls will be more democratic than the most recent ones. Maintaining his control of the Armenian parliament, which has impeachment powers, is just as vital for Kocharian as winning a second term in office. Securing a desirable election outcome at any cost might thus outweigh all international risks.