By Harry Tamrazian in Prague
Azerbaijan is moving faster than Armenia in democratizing its political system despite being considered a more undemocratic country by Western human rights organizations, according to a senior U.S. administration official.
In an RFE/RL interview late last week, Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, implied that President Robert Kocharian has to follow Azerbaijan’s reform example if he wants to be received by President George W. Bush at the White House.
Washington normally snubs those foreign leaders who were not elected in polls deemed free and fair by the international community. Bush made what is widely seen as an exception to that rule when he held talks with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev at the White House last April. The talks came five months after an Azerbaijani parliamentary election that was denounced as fraudulent by Western observers.
Asked whether Kocharian too can now count on securing a White House reception, Bryza said, “We obviously don't look at balancing presidential meetings like that, but there's no reason not to want President Kocharian to come to Washington. Let me just say I hope we can see a similar series of positive steps on democratic reform in Armenia as we hope we are starting to see in Azerbaijan.”
“Maybe we're wrong about Azerbaijan. Maybe we're overly hopeful. But we think things are moving in a positive direction. And we hope to see more of that from Armenia,” he said.
Bryza claimed that there were “some significant improvements” in the Azerbaijani authorities’ conduct of the November parliamentary election even if they “didn't go as far as we would like.”
A monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, headed by a U.S. congressman, described the polls as deeply flawed, citing numerous serious violations witnessed by its observers. Western human rights groups also condemned a brutal break-up by security forces of a big opposition demonstration in Baku against the official vote results.
In a statement issued ahead of Aliev’s Washington trip, Human Rights Watch urged Bush to “press for concrete progress in Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record.” The respected watchdog said the Azerbaijani government continues to harass political opponents and has yet to implement election-related recommendations of the OSCE and the Council of Europe.
Another New York-based group, Freedom House, again rated Armenia more highly than Azerbaijan in it latest annual survey of political reform across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet that was released earlier this month. “Azerbaijan’s democratic performance continues to show signs of deterioration, especially in the categories of electoral process and civil society,” the survey said, explaining a drop in the country’s already poor democracy rating.
By contrast, the same rating assigned by Freedom House to Armenia improved slightly. The watchdog argued that although the November constitutional referendum in Armenia was also flawed, it resulted in the enactment of amendments that “should provide a more even balance of power between the president, Parliament and the judiciary.”
Bryza insisted that democratic reform is high on the Bush administration’s agenda but admitted that other factors such as Azerbaijan’s oil reserves and geographic location are also at play. “Just because Azerbaijan hasn't gone as far as we would like on democracy doesn't mean we're going to ignore our energy interests or our military interests,” he said.
“Why would we freeze out President Ilham Aliev from contact with our president forever because we think he needs to do more on democracy? That doesn't make sense,” he added.
Turning to the Armenian government, Bryza pointed to its handling of the constitutional referendum which was also criticized by European observers and denounced as fraudulent by the Armenian opposition. Washington expects relevant “positive changes” from Yerevan before the next Armenian elections, he said.
Incidentally the Bush administration official stopped short of questioning the Kocharian administration’s commitment to democratic change when he spoke with RFE/RL in the wake of the disputed referendum. “It’s too early to judge whether or not democracy has moved forward,” he said on December 7.
Bryza also steered clear of criticizing the Armenian authorities’ democracy and human rights records when he visited Yerevan last March, stressing instead the importance of building democracy “from the bottom up.” He said Washington regards Armenia as a “democratizing country.”
(Photolur photo: Matthew Bryza.)