By Ruzanna Stepanian
A renowned U.S. academic of Armenian descent launched on Thursday a scathing attack on the authorities in Yerevan, saying that their failure to hold free elections and respect political freedoms threatens to turn Armenia into a “failed state.”
Richard Hovannisian, a senior professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), claimed that domestic policies pursued by the administration of President Robert Kocharian have alienated a large part of the country’s population and the influential Armenian community in the United States.
“Watching from the outside, we follow with pain the continuing electoral and other illegalities committed in Armenia,” he told RFE/RL in an interview. “We would have loved to see freedom of speech and thought in Armenia, instead of repression, secret police persecution and lies spread by state media.”
Hovannisian, who is arguably the most famous of Armenian-American historians, believes that in some respects Armenia is now an even less democratic state than Turkey, its historical foe regularly castigated by the West for its poor human and civil rights record. “Sometimes we condemn Turkey and call it a military dictatorship. But the fact is that the press is freer there,” he said.
The remark is extraordinary for a scholar who has spent several decades researching the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire and campaigning for its recognition by modern-day Turkey and the international community. Hovannisian serves on the board of directors of nine scholarly and civic organizations, including the International Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide and the Washington-based Armenian National Institute. He also became in 1990 the first foreign social scientist to be elected a member of Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences.
Hovannisian did not deny that his perception of the Kocharian administration has been significantly affected by its controversial treatment of his equally famous son Raffi who served as independent Armenia’s first foreign minister and is now a leading opposition figure. His opposition party called Zharangutyun (Heritage) was locked out of its Yerevan offices this month in what he considers a retaliation for his harsh attacks on Kocharian voiced late last year.
In a separate development, Armenian state television accused Raffi Hovannisian’s wife earlier this year of illegally using U.S. government assistance to Armenia to finance opposition rallies in Yerevan. She strongly denied the charges.
“If Raffi Hovannisian had kept silent, acted like a ‘benign’ Diaspora Armenian here and did not attempt to engage in politics, they would have not only kept his office open but also accepted and shown him on their television,” said Richard Hovannisian. “I feel sorry for the individuals who are now suppressing him. If they had been in his place, they would not have even thought about moving to Armenia [from the United States in 1990].”
The veteran scholar claimed that his critical views on Armenia’s current leadership are shared by a growing number of Armenian-Americans. “I personally know dozens of individuals who say that they will not donate money to Armenia anymore because they have lost faith,” he said.
Leaders of the Armenian communities in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world rarely speak out on internal political developments in Armenia and publicly criticize its government’s controversial actions, preferring instead to concentrate on international recognition of the Armenian genocide. Accordingly, problems like government corruption or vote falsifications have rarely been on the agenda of conferences discussing ways of strengthening ties between Armenia and its Diaspora.
Perj Zeytuntsian, a Diaspora-born Armenian novelist and playwright, deplored this situation during a roundtable discussion in Yerevan last August. “We must constantly hear friendly statements like ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ That’s what is missing in the Diaspora,” he complained.
“They really avoid publicly criticizing [the Armenian government],” said Hovannisian. “Perhaps that is a consequence of the genocide. We suffered so many losses that we do not want to jeopardize the remaining small territory called Armenia.”
“But we must not become a failed state. If this state also fails, we will have no future,” he added. “As long as our rulers fail to realize that they are not on the right track, that they must accept the people’s will, that they must allow political freedoms, I won’t be able to say that there will be positive change in this country.”