By Armen Zakarian
The virtual absence of opposition leaders at the official opening of the new U.S. embassy in Yerevan should not be construed as an expression of Washington’s unequivocal support for Armenia’s government, U.S. Ambassador John Evans said on Friday.
“There was no policy of excluding the opposition from this particular event,” Evans told journalists. “In fact, I know at least one member of the opposition was there, and undoubtedly in the future there will be members of the opposition invited to other events. So I don’t think it should be overdramatized.”
The envoy was apparently referring to Raffi Hovannisian, Armenia’s U.S.-born former foreign minister who attended last week’s high-profile inauguration of the new embassy building along with President Robert Kocharian and most members of his government. Hovannisian’s Zharangutyun (Heritage) party is in opposition to Kocharian.
Leaders of Armenia’s two main opposition groups represented in parliament were not invited to the opening ceremony, however. This fact fueled speculation in the Armenian media that the United States has decided to side with Kocharian in his long-running standoff with the opposition and will not back its efforts at regime change. Some commentators have pointed to Evans’s repeated statements that Armenia is “headed in the right direction.”
But Evans denied the speculation, implying that a lack of space in the sprawling embassy compound was a more likely reason for the absence of prominent oppositionists. “We used a concept of a press pool [for the opening ceremony], which we frequently use in the United States when there is insufficient room to invite all members of the press,” he said.
"I am very surprised that while President George Bush speaks about democracy, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia demonstrates such a discrediting approach by inviting only government representatives," Hovannes Hovannisian, a leader of the Liberal Progressive Party, a pro-Western opposition group, complained in a newspaper interview published on Wednesday.
But other, more famous opposition leaders were more cautious in their comments. “I see nothing extraordinary in the fact that they did not invite us,” National Unity Party leader Artashes Geghamian told the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily.
Another opposition heavyweight, Aram Sarkisian, claimed that the Americans are simply courting Kocharian to make sure that he steps down “without bloodshed.”
Geghamian and Sarkisian sound increasingly pro-Western and pro-American in their struggle against Kocharian. They are thought to be seeking Washington’s support for their efforts to topple the Armenian leader with a popular pro-democracy movement. Both men must be buoyed by Bush’s strong endorsement of the results of Georgia’s November 2003 “rose revolution” during his visit to Tbilisi this week.
However, U.S. officials have indicated that they believe regime change is not a necessary condition for similar democratic change in Armenia.