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By Emil Danielyan
A leading U.S. human rights organization urged the U.S. administration on Friday to withhold promised economic assistance to Armenia and six other developing countries which it believes fail to meet “reasonable standards” for democracy and civil liberties.

The Bush administration has made the seven nations, among them Egypt, Jordan and Vietnam, eligible for large-scale U.S. aid under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program and expects them to embark on sweeping political and economic reforms in return.

The New York-based Freedom House charged that the Armenian government has been “backsliding on promised reforms” since it signed last March a $235.6 million MCA compact with a U.S. government agency managing the scheme designed to promote good governance around the world. “Armenia has failed in its pledge made to the [Millennium Challenge Corporation] to improve its institutional commitment to democracy and tolerance of opposition,” it said in a statement.

In particular, Freedom House accused the Armenian government of ignoring U.S. calls to investigate serious fraud reported during the November 2005 referendum on a raft of Western-backed amendments to Armenia’s constitution. “Implementation of the referendum’s tepid reforms stalled in 2006, and the opposition expects upcoming parliamentary elections to once again be marred by fraud,” it said. “Multiple anti-democratic methods are used to maintain a hold on power.”

The statement also alleged a lack of judicial independence and press freedom in the country.

U.S. officials have made it clear that the release of the MCA funds is contingent on “corrective steps” that would demonstrate Yerevan’s commitment to human rights and free elections. In a May 15 letter to President Robert Kocharian, the MCC chief executive John Danilovich warned that a “continued negative trend in Armenia’s policy performance would endanger the continuation of the recently signed Compact.”

Matthew Bryza, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, likewise said last July that the release of the five-year aid package will be at risk if the World Bank and Freedom House conclude that “progress on democracy has stalled.” Bryza at the same time made a quite positive assessment of the Armenian authorities’ democratic credentials, saying that they are doing “good job on democracy.” “I think Armenia is moving in a good direction,” he told RFE/RL.

Observers believe that a lot depends on the authorities’ conduct of next spring’s parliamentary elections. The issue dominated a recent visit to Yerevan by Julie Finley, the U.S. ambassador to the Vienna headquarters of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The promised U.S. aid would be used for upgrading Armenia’s battered irrigation networks and rural roads. Officials say the vast majority of approximately one million Armenians dependent on farming would directly benefit from that.

(AP-Photolur photo: Armenian Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian, left, and John Danilovich sign the MCA compact in Washington on March 27.)
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