By Nane Atshemian
The United States believes it can help to make future elections in Armenia more democratic by continuing to “aggressively” support its government’s economic reforms and efforts to tackle poverty, an influential Republican senator said on Tuesday.
Norm Coleman, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a positive assessment of political reform in Armenia, saying that the freedom and fairness of elections should not serve as the sole indicator of democratization. He also indicated his opposition to pre-term presidential and parliamentary elections in the country.
“Elections alone don’t make democracy,” Coleman told RFE/RL at the start of a three-day visit to Yerevan.
“I think you can measure democracy also in terms of the economy and the choices that people have and less state control and more opportunity and cutting back on poverty,” he said. “We are not waiting just for an election. In fact, we are working aggressively to strengthen the economic base to provide a better atmosphere for a free and democratic process.”
The United States has criticized virtually all national elections held in Armenia in the past. The criticism was particularly strong in the wake of the 2003 presidential ballot which international observers said failed to meet democratic standards due to serious fraud. The State Department said at the time that President Robert Kocharian’s administration missed “an important opportunity to advance democratization.”
Armenian opposition leaders say democratic elections are impossible under the current regime and have pledged to continue seek its ouster before the next presidential election due in 2008. They have been buoyed by President George W. Bush’s recent strong endorsement of the November 2003 “rose revolution” in neighboring Georgia.
But Coleman, who also chairs the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, spoke out against fresh elections in Armenia. “There is an election and it’s at a set period of time,” he said. “You want stability, you don’t want to promote instability.”
That election will lead to a “strengthening of democracy in this country,” the Minnesota senator added. It is not clear if the comments reflect the U.S. government’s position.
Coleman spoke to RFE/RL after a meeting with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian. He was received by President Robert Kocharian later in the day.
Markarian’s office said the meeting focused on the provision of additional U.S. assistance to Armenia under Bush’s Millennium Challenge Account program. Yerevan hopes to receive $175 million within the next four years under the scheme designed to spur economic reforms around the world.
According to Coleman, the Armenian government also wants “more aggressive” U.S. efforts to get Turkey to lift its long-running economic blockade of Armenia. He said Washington, for its part, is concerned about government corruption and “would like to see a strengthening of rule of law in Armenia.”
“We’ve got a good relationship and I see it moving in the right direction,” Coleman added.
Coleman arrived in Yerevan late Monday with Gerard Cafesjian, a Minnesota-based businessman and philanthropist of Armenian origin. He will attend a ceremony marking the start of construction on a Cafesjian-funded museum in Yerevan.
The Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington-based lobbying group, described Coleman and Cafesjian as “long-time friends.” In a statement on Monday, it said the senator has been “an active supporter of Armenian issues” and welcomed his trip to Armenia.