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Armenia’s leading political forces offered on Tuesday differing assessments of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Yerevan, with the ruling Republican Party (HHK) touting it as “very important” for the country and its opponents sounding far more skeptical.


Some local pro-democracy activists, meanwhile, expressed their disappointment with Clinton’s failure to publicly criticize the Armenian authorities’ human rights record.

“The American vector is one of the most important directions of our foreign policy,” Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the HHK, which is led by President Serzh Sarkisian. “Ever since the first day of our independence, there has been very close cooperation [between the two nations,] and the United States has provided various assistance to the young Republic of Armenia both in terms of democracy building and other areas.”

Echoing statements by Armenian government officials, he said Clinton’s visit strengthened U.S.-Armenian relations. He cited Clinton’s public endorsement of Armenia’s position on normalizing relations with Turkey as another key result of the trip.

“We knew very well that the United States administration always supported the Armenian president’s pro-active policy of establishing relations with Turkey without preconditions,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “But Mrs. Clinton went farther here.”

“This was a gesture to the Armenian authorities. I think this was also a message to Turkey to the effect that the U.S. supports Armenia on this issue and agrees with Armenia’s view that Turkey is not constructive and is speaking with preconditions,” added the ruling party spokesman.

Armenia -- Giro Manoyan, a senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party.
But a senior representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an opposition party highly critical of Sarkisian’s U.S.-backed policy on Turkey, downplayed Clinton’s statements. Giro Manoyan suggested that they were aimed at making sure that Yerevan does not rescind its signature from the Turkish-Armenian protocols signed last October.

Manoyan also reiterated his party’s strong criticism of Clinton’s failure to describe the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide during what the U.S. Embassy in Armenia called a “private visit” to the Tsitsernakabert genocide memorial in Yerevan. He denounced the characterization as “offensive” and said it contradicts the fact that she laid a wreath there in her capacity as America’s top diplomat. “The American side should clarify what happened,” he told RFE/RL.

Sharmazanov welcomed the wreath-laying ceremony, saying it showed that the U.S. is “committed to democratic values and human rights.” He also hailed Clinton’s statements on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and, in particular, her strong condemnation of threats to solve by it force. The condemnation was primarily addressed to Azerbaijan, he said.

Manoyan countered that Clinton did not mention Azerbaijan by name. “I would say that pressure over the Karabakh issue was mainly exerted on Armenia,” he claimed.

Levon Zurabian, a leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), was more cautious in that regard. “The [Karabakh-related] statements made so far suggest that no tangible results were achieved,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “It is possible, though, that there are tangible results which both sides prefer not to make public. If that is case, then we need to wait for the revelation of those results in the near future.”

Armenia -- Levon Zurabian, a leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress, holds a news conference on February 23, 2010.
What is certain, according to Zurabian, is that Karabakh was the main focus of Clinton’s weekend talks in Yerevan and Baku. He said her avoidance of any contacts with Armenian and Azerbaijani opposition leaders is an “indirect indication” that brokering an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal is more important to Washington than promoting democracy in both South Caucasus countries.

“Being a mediator in the negotiations on a Karabakh settlement, the United States is doing everything not to cause Ilham Aliyev’s and Serzh Sarkisian’s discontent with its contacts with the opposition,” said Zurabian. “That shows that the United States has relegated domestic political issues in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to the background.”

In her public pronouncements in Yerevan, Clinton stressed the importance of Armenia’s democratization, voiced support for local civic groups, and expressed concern about a lack of media freedom in the country. But she made no mention of the lingering fallout from Armenia’s 2008 post-election political crisis, including the continuing imprisonment of more than a dozen HAK activists and supporters.

Artur Sakunts, a prominent human rights campaigner based in Vanadzor, called that fact “worrisome.” “It reinforces my belief that unfortunately non-public discussions on human rights are not sufficient,” he told RFE/RL. “These are the kind of issues that must be raised publicly.”

Sakunts’s disappointment was shared by Levon Barseghian of the Asparez Journalists’ Club based in another northern Armenian city, Gyumri. Barseghian said Clinton should have publicly demanded the release of all “political prisoners” and denounced the authorities’ failure to punish those responsible for the deaths of ten people in the March 2008 unrest in Yerevan.

Both Sakunts and Barseghian were among two dozen Armenian journalists and civic activists who met with Clinton at the end of her visit on Monday.
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