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By Emil Danielyan
A senior State Department official stood by U.S. criticism of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the November 27 constitutional referendum but stopped short of openly questioning their commitment to democracy on Wednesday.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Matthew Bryza reiterated the U.S. view that constitutional amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian will facilitate the democratization of Armenia’s political system. But he reserved judgment on whether the highly controversial way in which they were enacted has actually made the country more democratic, highlighting Washington’s cautious line on the Armenian leadership.

He also insisted that recent months’ progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process does not make the administration of President George W. Bush disinterested in regime change in Baku and Yerevan.

“It’s too early to judge whether or not democracy has moved forward,” Bryza said. “Let’s see the extent to which these [constitutional] provisions are implemented as well as the extent to which the Armenian government works with its own political parties, civil society to strengthen electoral and referendum procedures.”

The Bush administration’s official reaction to the Armenian authorities’ handling of the referendum was expressed in a written statement by the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs last week. Citing the findings of Council of Europe observers, the statement called into question the official results that showed an unusually high voter turnout and a crushing “yes” vote.

Bryza, the number two figure at the Bureau, repeated U.S. calls for an official investigation into serious fraud reported by the observers, “particularly with regard to whether or not the threshold was met for the validation” of the constitutional reform. “It’s time for the government of Armenia to investigate the reports of serious abuse and fraud,” he said. “If the government of Armenia investigates and punishes those who are guilty of fraud, you could say this is a step forward for the democratic process. But we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The European Union, another active backer of Kocharian constitutional reform, has expressed concern about “reports of ballot stuffing and manipulation of the turnout figures.” “A failure to prevent activities such as this calls into question Armenia's commitment to transparency and democracy,” the EU said in a statement circulated by the British embassy in Yerevan last week.

But Bryza, who was due to visit Armenia this week but cancelled the trip due to heavy fog that has effectively shut down its main international airport, avoided challenging the Kocharian administration’s democratic credentials. “It’s premature to judge whether or not referendum experience reflected the government’s commitment or lack thereof to democracy,” he said.

“There are provisions that are designed to strengthen democracy and were opposed, in many cases, by the beneficiaries of those provisions. It’s a very complicated mix,” he added in a thinly veiled rebuke to Armenian opposition parties and civic groups that rejected the amendments as irrelevant and insufficient.

The U.S. official also would not speculate on whether or not the authorities’ conduct of the referendum bodes ill for the freedom and fairness of the next Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2007 and 2008 respectively. “I’m not sure that we can ever predict the future with accuracy,” he said. “What we can say is that it is time for the governments of the United States and Armenia, civil society and all the political parties of Armenia to take stock of what happened.”

The State Department said in its statement that it is “working closely” with the Armenian government to help ensure that the 2007 and 2008 elections are democratic. But the local opposition groups say the referendum showed that clean polls will be impossible in Armenia as long as Kocharian and his governing coalition remain in power. They maintain that regime change is therefore a necessary condition for democratization.

The Bush administration, however, clearly wants Kocharian and his loyal parliament to be able to complete their constitutionally defined terms in office, despite its strong endorsement of the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Bryza underlined this policy by calling for a “dialogue” between the rival political camps and even suggesting that they agree, if necessary, on additional amendments to the Armenian constitution.

Bryza pointed out at the same time that the Armenian leadership has to press on with real political reform if it is to achieve a “full-scale” relationship with the United States. “To have a full-scale partnership with our government any country needs to be working with us on more than simply shared interests,” he said. “A real partnership requires progress on shared values of democracy and expanding freedom and economic reform. I can only assume that the Armenian government seeks that sort of relationship and partnership with the United States.”

Bryza further dismissed the argument that the United States will not seek to undercut Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, who also held an allegedly fraudulent vote last month, now that they seem close to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “[Progress in the peace process] does not weaken our resolve to promote democracy because we believe that we can not have long-term security or stable situation in the Caucasus if democratic reform isn’t moving forward,” he said.

(GI-Photolur photo: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)
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