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By Hrach Melkumian
The upcoming parliamentary elections represent an opportunity for Armenia to improve its image in the West tarnished by the recent disputed presidential vote, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, said on Tuesday.

Ordway said a clean vote could repair much of the damage caused by the Armenian authorities’ handling of the poll held in two rounds on February 19 and March 5. He warned that failure to prevent massive vote irregularities this time around will not only deal another blow to Armenia’s international standing but also undermine its domestic political stability.

The May 25 elections will be closely watched by the U.S. and other Western powers for the kind of serious irregularities which led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe to strongly criticize President Robert Kocharian’s reelection.

Senior Armenian officials have pledged to do their best to minimize the irregularities and ensure the legitimacy of the electoral process. Opposition groups, however, are highly skeptical about their sincerity.

Speaking at a news conference, Ordway said free and fair elections is one of the main criteria which Armenia must meet if it is to receive additional U.S. assistance under a new scheme unveiled by President George W. Bush this year. The plan, called “balance sheet of millennium problems,” commits the U.S. to providing within the next four years a total of $5 billion in aid to those developing countries of the world that pursue democratic and market-oriented reforms. Those include holding democratic elections, fighting corruption and protecting press freedom.

In a statement, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan said achieving those standards would be an “excellent” goal for the Armenian leadership. Ordway said they are very relevant to Armenia. But he would not be drawn on how close the country is now to meeting the U.S. aid criteria.

Armenia has already been a leading per-capita recipient of U.S. government aid since its independence. It has totaled approximately $1.4 billion or about three times more than the impoverished country’s 2002 state budget.
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