By Emil Danielyan
John Evans, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Armenia, said on Thursday that U.S.-Armenian relations have grown closer during his two-year tenure in Yerevan and will develop further in the years to come. He insisted that Armenia is slowly but steadily becoming a democratic state that shares “fundamental values” with the United States.
Evans also would not be drawn on President George W. Bush’s controversial decision earlier this year to replace him by another career diplomat, which has been widely attributed to his public description of the 1915-1918 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
“I do believe that Armenian-American relations are improving,” he told RFE/RL in an interview. “We are doing many more things together these days. Particularly there has been a growth in our cooperation in the defense and security area. There is more American investment here every day, although it’s growing slowly.”
“I think there is every reason to imagine that Armenian-American relations will prosper in the future as I believe they have in the last few years,” he said.
The remarks echoed statements by other U.S. officials who have praised the Armenian leadership for sending a small contingent of troops to Iraq and stepping up cooperation with NATO. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said last March that Washington and Yerevan are “working hard together to help Armenia to realize its desire to have stronger relations with the Euro-Atlantic family”
“Armenia and the United States have some fundamental shared values which help us to understand each other better,” Evans said. “This is one of the reasons I believe that Armenia’s future is with the democratic countries of the world. I think Armenia has all the basic preconditions to become a leading democracy in this part of the world.”
The Armenian government’s democratic credentials, tainted by chronic vote rigging, will again come under international scrutiny during parliamentary elections that are due to take place early next year. The authorities have pledged to do their best to ensure that the vote is free and fair. However, a recent U.S.-funded opinion poll suggested that seventy percent of Armenians do not trust these assurances and anticipate a repeat of serious fraud reported during the previous polls.
Evans noted that one of the key obstacles to the proper conduct of Armenian elections is a “fear to step decisively in the direction of trusting the voters to make the right choices about those who represent them.” “It’s a psychological barrier,” he said in an apparent reference to the country’s rulers. “But I think eventually this barrier will be crossed … The time for massive falsification of voting results has passed. We have seen what has happened in other countries where people have played tricks with the election returns.”
Evans went on to argue that Armenia, which will officially celebrate the 15th anniversary of its independence on September 21, is still a young state and needs more time to “mature” as a democracy. “There is nothing which says that the road towards greater democracy is going to be always straight, that there won’t be obstacles, that there won’t be occasional steps back,” he said. “But in the long run, that is where Armenia should be headed, and I think that’s where Armenia is headed.”
Local opposition leaders and some political analysts believe, however, that Armenia’s existing flawed political system is becoming increasingly entrenched and will be even more difficult to democratize in the future. They point, among other things, to the authorities’ handling of last November’s constitutional referendum, the official results of which claimed a record-high voter turnout despite eerily empty polling stations across the country.
Speaking about serious challenges facing Armenia, Evans singled out the need to ensure its long-term energy security. “I think that’s very important for a country like Armenia that does not have its own sources of energy in the form of hydrocarbons and whose nuclear plant is aging and needs to be closed down in the next decade,” he said.
The 58-year-old diplomat further praised the double-digit economic growth reported by the Armenian government in recent years, but cautioned that it “has not been even” and has mostly benefited Yerevan. “Yerevan is booming,” he said. “There are traffic jams, the sound of construction never ceases. But if the entire country is to develop in a healthy way, more attention needs to be given to smaller cities and towns.”
The U.S. administration moved to help to reduce that development gap when it approved early this year $235.6 million in additional economic assistance to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account program. The bulk of the sum is to be spent on upgrading rural roads and irrigation networks. U.S. and Armenian officials say rural poverty in Armenia will decrease considerably as a result.
Evans is expected to leave Yerevan early next month, two years after he handed his credentials to President Robert Kocharian. The normal diplomatic term for U.S. ambassadors abroad is three years. In announcing the envoy’s replacement in May, the White House gave no reasons. Leaders of the influential Armenian community in the U.S. are convinced that the move resulted from his public recognition of the Armenian genocide.
“The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” Evans had declared during a February 2005 meeting with Armenian-American activists in California, contradicting the long-running policy of successive U.S. governments. They have avoided using the word “genocide” with regard to the extermination of some 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire for fear of antagonizing Turkey, a strategic NATO ally.
Evans did not explicitly deny that this was the reason for his sacking, but refused to comment on the issue, saying that it is an internal U.S. affair. “This is not a subject that I have ever discussed here in Armenia,” he said.
Asked whether he feels hard done by, he said: “No. I would say that at this point it’s time for me to move on to other things, and I look forward to doing that. I may write a book about some of these issues. The future will tell.”
Evans, who will retire from the U.S. diplomatic service after returning to Washington, revealed that he has received a “nice note” from Bush that thanked him for his work in Armenia. He also commended Bush’s choice of the next U.S. envoy in Yerevan, Richard Hoagland, as a “consummate professional.”
Hoagland, currently the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, has still not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate amid a continuing Armenian-American outcry against Evans’s dismissal. About a dozen pro-Armenian senators and some 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have expressed serious concern at the controversial recall, demanding explanations from the Bush administration and the State Department.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bowing to pressure from Armenian-American lobbying groups, has postponed a confirmation vote on Hoagland’s nomination until the end of next month. At least one of its members, Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, has said he will vote against the ambassador-designate, citing the latter’s refusal to publicly term the Armenian massacres a genocide.