By Emil Danielyan
The United States expects President Serzh Sarkisian to restore civil liberties and take other “dramatically positive steps” to resolve Armenia’s grave political crisis, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza indicated that the Armenian government has so far failed to address U.S. concerns stemming from its crackdown on the opposition that followed the February 19 presidential election. He also said that Washington has revised its initial, largely positive, assessment of the government’s conduct of the vote.
The authorities in Yerevan have been under pressure from the U.S. and the European Union to end the crackdown and release more than 100 supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested as a result. They lifted late last month a state of emergency imposed in Yerevan following the March 1 deadly clashes between security forces and opposition protesters.
“More needs to happen to restore the confidence of the Armenian people that the country is moving in the right direction and that there is some momentum in the development of democracy,” Bryza told RFE/RL in an interview. “First of all, healing has to take place,” he said. “But beyond healing, dramatic steps are needed to restore a sense of confidence that the country is moving in the right direction.”
Bryza said those steps should include a dialogue with the opposition, the release of opposition activists arrested for their political activities as well as a “full restoration” of freedom of speech and assembly. He warned that failure to take such steps would cause further damage to U.S.-Armenian ties and, in particular, call into question continued U.S. economic assistance to Armenia.
“We don’t want to burn any bridges,” he said. “But we do want to be clear in signaling that we think that the seriousness of the current situation is profound. We need to see signs that the momentum of democracy and political and economic freedom is being restored.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials warned last month of a freeze on the $236 million aid package promised by Washington as part of its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. Departing President Robert Kocharian scoffed at the warnings, saying that Yerevan can find other sources of funding for rural infrastructure projects covered by the MCA.
According to Bryza, Kocharian’s remarks did not go down well with officials in Washington. “Armenia will survive fine without American money,” he said. “That’s not the point. The point is that our program is a sign of friendship and our approval.
“The Millennium Challenge Account is a symbol of that friendship. You can’t buy that friendship by finding the money in some place else.”
The U.S. official spoke to RFE/RL just hours before Sarkisian was sworn in as Armenia’s next president. He attended the inauguration ceremony despite U.S. President W. Bush’s failure to congratulate Sarkisian on his election victory challenged by the opposition.
Asked whether Bush may yet send a letter of congratulation to his new Armenian counterpart, Bryza said, “I think you will see the response from the highest level in Washington reflecting the course of events here. As the people of Armenia demonstrate that they are increasingly comfortable with the direction in which the country is moving, you’ll hear the same sort of statements from Washington as well.”
Bryza further made it clear that Washington is now more critical of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the presidential election than it was in the immediate aftermath of the vote.
The U.S. State Department initially echoed Western observers’ mostly positive assessment of the election conduct contained in their preliminary report released on February 20. However, subsequent statements by U.S. officials painted a more bleak picture.
Bryza attributed this to the fact that “very serious problems” emerged during vote recounts in some of Armenia’s nearly 2,000 polling stations. He said U.S. diplomats witnessed “worrisome people coming to polling stations and being extremely threatening and taking over the process of recount.” “So when you see those things happening after your initial report, your subsequent reports have to be more critical,” he said.