By Emil Danielyan
A senior U.S. official offered on Friday a mixed assessment of President Serzh Sarkisian’s track record in power, welcoming his “positive steps” to end Armenia’s post-election political crisis but expressing concern about the continuing government crackdown on the opposition.
“There have been some positive steps by the government recently to heal damage from the tragedy of March 1-2,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told RFE/RL in an interview.
“But we still have concerns about some people that were detained for political accusations or supposed crimes,” he said. “We have lingering concerns about freedom of assembly not being restored fully and we still worry about the divide between the government and opposition.”
Ever since he took office on April 9, Sarkisian has been under pressure from the United States and other Western powers to end the crackdown that involved mass arrests and the use of lethal force against opposition demonstrators demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election. U.S. officials have repeatedly urged the new Armenian administrations to release all political prisoners, abolish severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and engage in dialogue with the opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Bryza said earlier that such “dramatic” steps are essential for repairing damage caused to U.S.-Armenian relations by what Washington considers a “significantly flawed” election and the Armenian government’s handling of the ensued opposition protests in Yerevan. The political situation in Armenia was on the agenda of Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian’s talks in Washington this week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bryza and other U.S. officials.
“I don’t think we are at a ‘dramatic’ phase yet, but we are seeing some positive momentum,” Bryza said. “The direction has shifted and is much better.”
“It seems that President Sarkisian understands the challenges that face the country and what issues need some work,” he said, speaking from Washington. “We have seen some leadership from him on a number fronts and we appreciate that.”
The U.S. official argued that the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition has now better access to Armenia’s government-controlled TV stations and more freedom to hold rallies and pointed to the launch of a parliamentary inquiry into the deadly March 1-2 clashes in Yerevan. “It would be even better if the opposition were participating in the inquiry and we hope that the government can convince the opposition to join,” he said.
Bryza went on to heap praise on Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian for his stated efforts to combat corruption, ensure equal government treatment of all businesses and reform Armenia’s tax and customs services. “The prime minister is setting a good example as he takes on tough issues and is advancing a reform agenda,” he said.
Bryza at the same time reiterated U.S. concerns about the continuing imprisonment of dozens of opposition members and supporters on charges which he said are often “unpersuasive.” “Those are issues that make it impossible to say that the democratic momentum has been fully restored,” he said, adding that that is the reason why Washington is in no rush to unblock the release of additional economic assistance to Armenia under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which administers the scheme, pointedly declined last month to disburse a fresh installment of the $236 million aid package designed to upgrade Armenia’s rural infrastructure. The MCC board said it will “continue to monitor the situation” and will again discuss the matter at its next meeting due in September.
“It’s too early to tell now whether the MCC board will decide to continue or end the program in September,” said Bryza.