The United States has expressed concern about the Armenian government’s continuing post-election crackdown on the opposition and threatened to suspend its multimillion-dollar economic assistance to Armenia.
"We continue to follow with concern the current situation in Armenia," a spokesman for the White House, Tony Fratto, told reporters on Thursday. He pointed to the imposition of a state of emergency in Yerevan and mass arrests of opposition activists following the March 1 clashes between security forces and opposition supporters protesting against the official results of last month’s disputed presidential election.
"The government of Armenia needs to uphold the rule of law, lift the state of emergency and restore press freedoms. We urge a political dialogue between the government and opposition to resolve the situation quickly," Fratto said, according to AFP news agency.
Reuters quoted the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as telling a congressional hearing in Washington on Wednesday that the emergency rule made it necessary to freeze some of the U.S. aid programs in Armenia. She did not elaborate.
Rice apparently referred to $235.6 million in aid which Washington has promised allocate to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program designed to promote political and economic reforms around the world. U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the sum’s disbursement is conditional on democratic reform and improved governance in Armenia.
In a Tuesday letter to President Robert Kocharian, the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), John Danilovich, warned that the U.S. government agency managing the scheme could “suspend or terminate” the five-year aid package due to the dramatic post-election developments in Armenia.
“MCC is reviewing operational aspects of its ongoing work in Armenia in light of these events, including the suspension of media freedoms and the imposition of a state of emergency, and is closely monitoring the situation with U.S. Government and donor colleagues,” Danilovich wrote. He said MCC needs to be certain that “our programs operate in a democratic environment.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian acknowledged on Thursday that continued U.S. assistance to Armenia is now at serious risk. “It all depends on how the United States evaluates things, on how quickly we can get out of this situation,” he said.
“Right now we are facing a dilemma: the country’s stability and the people’s security versus democratic values, liberties, civil rights,” Oskanian told a news conference. “The president of the republic is facing this dilemma.”
“The situation is not clear-cut. He has to balance things, and that’s not an easy task. The longer this balancing act lasts, the more the public will suffer,” he said.
Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian appears to be more sanguine in that regard, though. He chaired on Wednesday, the day after Danilovich’s letter to Kocharian, a meeting of the governing board of an Armenian government agency overseeing the use of MCA funds, which are due to be spent on upgrading the country’s battered irrigation networks and rural roads.
A statement by Sarkisian’s press office said the government received about $11.3 million in MCA funding as of last December and expects to get the next installment of the promised aid, also worth $11.3 million, in the second quarter of this year.
The aid package is essential for the success of the Sarkisian government’s efforts to reduce widespread rural poverty. According to Armenian and U.S. officials, the resulting infrastructure projects, if implemented, will benefit 75 percent of the country’s million-strong rural population.