By Ruzanna Stepanian
The United States hopes that next year’s presidential election will be the most democratic in Armenia’s history and will be closely monitoring its conduct, the new U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan, Rudolf Perina, said on Friday.
“The most recent parliamentary elections, according to international observers, were significantly better [than the ones held in the past] and we hope that the presidential elections will be better still,” Perina told RFE/RL in an interview.
“I think that the Armenian authorities recognize that it is very important that these elections be seen as credible and successful,” he said. “So we are hoping that these will be the best elections Armenia has ever had.”
In their preliminary report, international monitors mostly representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the May 12 vote was conducted “largely in accordance with international standards for democratic elections.” Their verdict was a massive boost to the international standing of Armenia’s leadership and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in particular.
U.S. reaction to the Armenian authorities’ handling of the polls, although more cautious, was also positive, with the State Department calling it a “step in the right direction.” Perina said Washington is keenly interested in the proper conduct of the presidential election “because we consider Armenia a good friend and a close partner.”
Unlike Western observers and governments, Armenia’s leading opposition groups reject the May elections as fraudulent and accuse the authorities of planning to rig the 2008 ballot as well. They claim that the arrest and prosecution of several prominent government critics, notably former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, is part of a broader government effort to create an “atmosphere of fear” in the country and facilitate vote rigging.
Perina declined to comment on those criminal cases and opposition claims that the arrested individuals are political prisoners. “We do not have details on either the evidence or the charges to be able to make such commentary,” he said. But he added that U.S. diplomats have “discussed” the sensitive case against Arzumanian with the authorities and hope that the ex-minister will get a fair trial.
Perina, who has the diplomatic rank of ambassador, took over the American embassy on July 10 in the continuing absence of a U.S. ambassador to Armenia. U.S. officials say another career diplomat, Richard Hoagland, remains President George W. Bush’s nominee for the vacant post. Hoagland’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate has been blocked by one of the senators in protest against the Bush administration’s refusal to term the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey a genocide.
Perina said he expects to remain in Yerevan only for “several months.” He denied a direct link between his appointment as charge d’affaires and the fact that he was the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group from 2001-2004.
“Perhaps the only connection may be that as the Minsk Group negotiator, I previously visited Yerevan many times,” he said. “I had contact and know many of the personalities and the leaders here. So perhaps that had some function in my current position.”
The diplomat stressed in this regard that a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict remains a “very, very high priority” for the U.S. He also reaffirmed U.S. criticism of Thursday’s presidential election in Karabakh.
“No country in the world recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country and the United States does not also,” Perina said. “So we do not recognize the elections as well.”
“But having said that, we also hope that the elections will not in any way impede or become an obstacle to the ongoing negotiations, and we hope that those negotiations will continue going forward,” he added.
One of the issues Perina has already had to deal with in his new capacity is the uncertainty surrounding continued broadcasts in Armenia of RFE/RL’s Armenian-language news programs. He reiterated Washington’s concerns over a possible end to their retransmission by Armenian Public Radio in separate meetings with Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian.
Perina said they assured him that the problem is a “technical” one and “can be worked out through negotiations.” “We have also been given assurances that while these negotiations are underway, RFE/RL will continue to be allowed to broadcast,” he said.
Asked how the U.S. government will react if RFE/RL’s Armenian service is pulled off the public air, the envoy said, “I don’t get into hypothetical situations. But I think that the authorities in Armenia understand that if it appeared that RFE/RL were being blocked from broadcasts for political reasons, this would be difficult for many friends of Armenia in the West and in the United States to understand.”