By Emil DanielyanThe United States stands by its view that President Robert Kocharian’s reelection fell short of democratic standards, but will maintain and even seek to deepen a “long-term relationship” with his administration, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway said on Wednesday.
Ordway reaffirmed Washington’s strong criticism of the Armenian presidential election, saying that it was tainted by “very serious shortcomings.” He also said that a clean vote would have put Armenia in a better position to deal with the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“We were disappointed. It was not what we had hoped for and expected from Armenia,” Ordway told a news conference. “We had very much hoped that this election would represent a step forward in the right direction. But it did not.”
“It was clear to us that a large number of irregularities, principally ballot stuffing, results in a process which does not meet international standards and therefore makes it difficult for us to say that we have confidence in the outcome,” he said.
Ordway, who personally monitored the two rounds of voting along with other U.S. diplomats, at the same time made it clear that Washington has a “significant agenda” with Armenia and will continue to cooperate with its current leadership. “We will continue to pursue that agenda and our joint interests in Armenia, in the region and in the world,” he said. “We will do that with the authorities, with President Kocharian in the years ahead as we have in the past several years.”
In a statement issued shortly after the March 5 run-off, the State Department said the U.S. government is “deeply disappointed” with the Kocharian government’s handling of the poll. Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Armenian leadership "missed an important opportunity to advance democratization by holding a credible election."
Ordway stressed that the U.S. will not be seeking any “punishment” for Armenia as it believes that it is Armenians that will bear “the main cost and burden of dealing with the outcome of an election that did not meet international standards.” “It’s not our purpose or our role to increase the burden and make the problem of dealing with the flaws in this election any worse than it already is,” he said. “So for our part, we are going to continue the bilateral relationship and we are going to strive to improve it.”
Still, the envoy urged the authorities to “correct the election flaws” by continuing to recount ballots in troubled polling stations, punish officials guilty of fraud and amend Armenia’s electoral legislation.
Armenia has been a leading per-capita recipient of U.S. assistance thanks to the existence of a large and influential Armenian community in America. The total amount of aid provided since 1992 has already reached 1.4 billion. The administration of President George W. Bush wants to cut it to $50 million in the next financial year, but faces strong opposition in Congress where Armenian-American lobbying groups have strong positions.
Draft legislation approved by two key committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate last month calls for "not less than" $90 million in U.S. assistance to Armenia in 2004.
Ordway said that a large part of American money will continue to be spent on the promotion of political reform in Armenia. “I don’t think there will be any major shifts in the overall thrust and direction of our program here,” he said.
“The fact that you don’t succeed, that you have something that doesn’t come up to what you expect doesn’t mean you pack up your bags and go home. It means that you get down and you work even harder. And that’s what we are gong to do.”
Turning to prospects for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a key aim of American policy in the Caucasus, Ordway refused to speculate on whether the embattled Armenian leader will have a mandate to strike an unpopular compromise deal with Azerbaijan. But he did say that the existence of a "strong and legitimate leadership” in Baku and Yerevan would greatly facilitate the peace process.
“I think that an election that had been conducted in accordance with international standards and in which everybody in Armenia had agreed produced a correct outcome would have put Armenia in a better position to address the broad range of problems, including Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said. “For our part, we will work very hard to make sure that the process can go forward and peace can be resolved regardless of what has happened in the elections here.”
The Karabakh peace talks are expected to remain effectively frozen at least until the presidential election in Azerbaijan this fall.