A senior U.S. official was reported to heap praise on Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian as he discussed with the latter Armenia’s bloody post-election unrest during a visit to Yerevan on Thursday.
A statement by the Armenian government cited Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza as commending Sarkisian for his stated readiness to engage in a dialogue with Armenians critical of the ruling regime.
“You are a special leader,” Bryza told Sarkisian, according to the statement. “In principle, we support you. I and the U.S. charge d’affaires in Armenia believe that you have the kind of vision and approaches that we want to see in the implementation of joint programs.”
“We want you to succeed and we want Armenia to succeed,” he said.
Speaking to the Associated Press news agency on his way to Yerevan from Baku, Bryza said the United States “deplores” Saturday’s deadly clashes in Yerevan but stopped of criticizing the use of lethal force against thousands of supporters of Sarkisian’s main election challenger, Levon Ter-Petrosian. He said he will press the Armenian authorities to scrap the 20-day state of emergency imposed in the capital by outgoing President Robert Kocharian. Its lifting has already been demanded by the European Union and some Western governments.
However, the government statement quoted Bryza as only telling Sarkisian that the emergency rule “can not continue endlessly.” “Matthew Bryza agreed with the prime minister in that the state of emergency is really an instrument that allows to ease tensions and direct processes towards a natural course,” it said. “He stressed that it is impossible to move along the path of democracy unless there is law and order in the country.”
The state of emergency has meant, among other things, serious government restrictions on independent news reporting in Armenia. As part of those restrictions, Armenian-language radio programs of the U.S.-funded RFE/RL are no longer being broadcast through local affiliated stations. There were indications late Thursday that the authorities have also blocked local Internet users’ access to the bilingual news websites of RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“We also are concerned about the limitations and restrictions that have been placed on the media, including Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe there and we’d like to see those lifted,” a spokesman for the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.
It is not clear if Bryza raised the matter with Sarkisian. The U.S. official is scheduled to meet Kocharian and Ter-Petrosian on Friday.
Also high on the agenda of his talks with Armenian leaders is the latest upsurge in deadly fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The warring sides have accused each other of breaching the ceasefire and made conflicting casualty claims.
Bryza, who is also Washington’s chief Karabakh negotiator, told the Associated Press that Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders assured him that they are committed to maintaining the shaky truce. "Based on everyone I have talked to it is clear that the shooting has stopped and the level of tension is decreasing," he said.
The Armenian side says the clashes broke out after Azerbaijani troops attacked Karabakh Armenian positions north-east of the disputed territory in the hope of capitalizing on the political crisis in Armenia. Official Baku claims the opposite, saying that Sarkisian and Kocharian are keen to distract the international community and the domestic public from their controversial handling of the recent presidential election.
Colonel-General Seyran Ohanian, chief of the Armenian army staff, dismissed those claims on Thursday. “We could not have resorted to actions with an uncertain outcome and without knowing what losses we could incur,” he told journalists. “Had we really attacked them we would not have had only two wounded soldiers and they would not have had numerous casualties.”
Ohanian also denied opposition claims that Sarkisian and Kocharian have retained power thanks to the Armenian military. “The reality in Armenia is that Serzh Sarkisian has won,” he said. “These are not empty words. There were elections and there are results accepted not only by us but by many foreign countries.”