By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
Aram Sarkisian, the leader of Armenia’s most radical opposition party, reaffirmed on Monday a dramatic re-orientation of his foreign policy views, praising the United States and questioning the wisdom’s of his country’s close military ties with Russia.
“We have a lot to learn from the United States and other Western democracies,” he told RFE/RL in an interview.
Sarkisian is scheduled to travel to the U.S. on June 7, ostensibly at the invitation of a small Diaspora-based political group called the Social Democratic Hnchakian Party. He said he will meet its leaders as well as members of the U.S. Congress during the week-long trip.
Sarkisian, who briefly served as Armenia’s prime minister in 1999-2000, would not say if meetings with officials from the White House or the State Department are also planned. But he did put his visit in the context of recent U.S. calls for democratization in the South Caucasus and elsewhere in the world. “Why not. It will be within that framework as well,” he said.
“Western governments are always elected by the people and that is called democracy,” he said. “The Russians, on the other hand, support the likes of Saddam Hussein, [Belarus President Aleksandr] Lukashenko, [Armenian President Robert] Kocharian who is totally rejected by our people. That is why Russia is losing.
“Russia is offering us nothing, while the West is urging us not to rig elections and to form legitimate judicial, legislative and executive bodies.”
Sarkisian went on to question Armenia’s participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and implied that its long-term security requires membership of NATO. “How long will the Collective Security Treaty last?” he said. “Five years at most. What will we do after five years? Will we be able to ensure our security?”
The remarks reflect growing pro-Western sentiment among leaders of the Armenian opposition. They have grown disillusioned with Russia’s support for Kocharian and hope that the U.S. will back their efforts to topple Kocharian whose legitimacy they refuse to recognize.
Sarkisian and other prominent oppositionists have been buoyed by U.S. support for a series of anti-government revolts across the former Soviet Union. Visiting Tbilisi earlier this month, President George W. Bush made an emphatic endorsement of Georgia’s 2003 “rose revolution,” saying that it should serve as an example for other, less democratic nations.
Speaking at the International Republican Institute in Washington on May 18, Bush declared that the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are “just the beginnings.” “Across the Caucasus and Central Asia, hope is stirring at the prospect of change -- and change will come,” he said.
“Democratic change can arrive suddenly -- and that means our government must be able to move quickly to provide needed assistance,” Bush added, announcing the creation of an “active response corps” within the State Department that will deal with such situations.
However, officials in the Bush administration made it clear earlier that Washington does not consider regime change a necessary condition for Armenia’s democratization. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans has repeatedly said that Armenia is “headed in the right direction,” implying that it can become a democracy under its current leadership.
But Sarkisian, who is seen by some commentators as Kocharian’s most dangerous foe, claimed the opposite. “In normal countries governments are changed through elections,” he said. “But in Armenia it is impossible to change government through elections.”
Sarkisian said his Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, which is a key member of Armenia’s largest opposition alliance, will therefore continue to fight for “regime change through a popular revolt.” But he would not say when and how it plans to launch it. Kocharian and his allies consider such actions unconstitutional.
Sarkisian and virtually all other opposition leaders were conspicuously absent from the list of Armenian dignitaries that attended the May 6 opening of the new U.S. embassy in Yerevan. Kocharian and most members of his cabinet, by contrast, were present at the opening ceremony. Evans has denied any political motives for the oppositionists’ exclusion.