By Nane Atshemian
An influential U.S. senator praised on Thursday political and economic reforms carried out in Armenia but said more needs to be done to democratize its political system.
Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, also signaled U.S. unease over Russian military presence in the country as he visited Yerevan at the head of a U.S. government delegation comprising senior military officials.
“I have been very impressed with the democratic reforms that have taken place in Armenia, the economic development, the rate of economic growth, the prosperity that’s developing,” Hagel told a news conference after talks with President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. “I think it’s very good news for Armenia and the region.”
Hagel, the second member of the Senate to visit Armenia this week, singled out the country’s robust economic growth. “I have seen and heard about the significant progress made in Armenia since 1998,” he said. “It’s important for Armenia to continue democratic reforms that always anchor democracy, enhance freedom and therefore enhance growth and development.”
“That means fair, free and open elections,” he added.
The United States has criticized virtually all national elections held in Armenia in the past, notably the 2003 presidential ballot. The State Department said at the time that Yerevan missed “an important opportunity to advance democratization.”
Norm Coleman, another Republican senator, told RFE/RL in Yerevan on Tuesday that Washington is trying to foster democratic elections in Armenia through an “aggressive” support for economic reforms. He argued that economic development will create a “better atmosphere for a free and democratic process.”
Hagel’s delegation arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan as part of its tour of Turkey, the South Caucasus and other regions which the senator said are “critical” for the U.S. It includes the deputy commander of the U.S. troops in Europe, General Charles Wald, and senior officials from the Pentagon and Congress. Wald paid a separate visit to Yerevan last April.
Kocharian, according to his press service, discussed with the visiting U.S. officials ways of “expanding U.S.-Armenian relations.” He was reported to have welcomed their “dynamic development.”
The U.S. delegation also visited the Yerevan headquarters of a special peace-keeping battalion of the Armenian armed forces. Dozens of its servicemen are currently involved in the U.S.-led missions in Kosovo and Iraq.
Hagel, who sits on four Senate committees and chairs two of their subcommittees, was also asked to comment on the transfer of Russian military hardware from Georgia to Armenia which has prompted protests from Azerbaijan. “This is an issue between the governments of Russia and Armenia,” he said. “I have always believed that sovereign nations not only must act but will act in their own self-interests.”
But Hagel went on to indicate that the U.S. government, which pushed for the closure of Russian military bases in Georgia, has serious misgivings about continued Russian military presence in Armenia. “I think it has always been the policy of the United States -- and I think it’s good policy -- that military presence of other nations in sovereign nations isn’t helpful in the regions of the world that we are trying to bring peace and prosperity and settle very serious conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Hagel meeting with Kocharian.)