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U.S. Envoy Laments ‘Apathy,’ Urges More Civic Activism In Armenia


Armenia - U.S. Ambassador John Heffern delivers a speech in Yerevan, 2Apr2012.

Armenia - U.S. Ambassador John Heffern delivers a speech in Yerevan, 2Apr2012.

U.S. Ambassador John Heffern on Monday complained about what he described as widespread voter apathy in Armenia and urged its citizens to be more active in fighting for democratic change.

Heffern cited a recent U.S.-funded opinion poll which suggests that only about one in ten Armenians believe that the upcoming parliamentary elections will be free and fair.

“Those who want to build democracy in Armenia can’t stop with statements about what ‘they’ should do,” he said. “Instead, Armenians should do their part to build institutional networks and coalitions to make their voices heard and establish and utilize mechanisms that deter fraud and hold government accountable.”

In a speech dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Armenia, Heffern said many Armenians feel that their government is disinterested in “meaningful change” in the country.

“These Armenians fear that reform in their country has stalled and, as a result, real opportunity -- whether political or economic -- is reserved for the few,” he said. “This model, they warn, will lead to incremental reforms that are at best marginal, and at worst counterproductive by giving the false illusion of progress.

“I think it is important to take this perspective seriously, in part because many Armenians do … I do not, however, personally share this pessimism and apathy about the prospects for change and reform.”

The Armenian authorities have repeatedly promised such reforms. As recently as on March 10, President Serzh Sarkisian pledged to radically “transform” Armenia’s political and socioeconomic systems at a pre-election congress of his Republican Party. Like Heffern, Sarkisian also lamented the domestic “atmosphere of pessimism and despair,” saying that the situation in the country is better than many ordinary people think.

Armenian opposition leaders and other government critics scoff at such rhetoric, saying that it has still not been backed up by concrete actions. They claim that the Sarkisian administration is not serious about its pledges to ensure the proper conduct of the May 6 parliamentary elections.

However, those pledges seem to be taken more seriously by U.S. officials. Eric Rubin, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said last November that the authorities in Yerevan are committed to holding a clean vote.

In his speech, Heffern revealed a recent opinion poll in Armenia that was commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute. The poll found that only 12 percent of voters expect the upcoming elections to be democratic.

“I understand that many Armenians are impatient, and feel that the pace of change is too slow. … Some impatience is a good thing, especially if it can be channeled into a force for positive change. But impatience can also be debilitating if it slides into apathy and cynicism,” Heffern said.

While citing and praising Sarkisian’s stated commitment to “European values,” the U.S. envoy noted that some elements within Armenia’s political leadership oppose genuine reform. “There are those who believe in ‘exemptions’ (usually for themselves) or have ‘reservations,’ and some of them have the power to block change,” he said without elaborating.

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