By Emil Danielyan
The United States does not regard regime change as a necessary condition for Armenia’s democratization and will work “very intensively” to ensure that the next Armenian elections are free and fair, U.S. Ambassador John Evans said on Thursday.
In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL, Evans reiterated U.S. support for President Robert Kocharian’s draft amendments to the Armenian constitution that will be put to a referendum in November. He also stood by his view that Armenia is “headed in the right direction.”
“It’s not our policy to suggest that political change should happen in the streets,” Evans said, commenting on the Armenian opposition’s hopes to attract U.S. support for its attempts to spark an anti-government “revolution.” “There is a great risk that people would be hurt and that the clock could actually be turned back.”
“We do believe that there is a possibility here in Armenia to make the kind of changes, that are needed here, through constitutional means with a little bit of help from Armenia’s friends, of which there are many,” he said.
Evans insisted that there is no contradiction between this and the U.S. government’s strong endorsement of the bloodless popular uprisings in neighboring Georgia as well as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In a speech last May, President George W. Bush said those revolutions were “just the beginnings.” “Across the Caucasus and Central Asia, hope is stirring at the prospect of change -- and change will come,” he declared at the International Republican Institute in Washington.
However, U.S. officials were quick to stress that Bush’s remarks should not be construed as an encouragement of similar regime change in Armenia and other ex-Soviet states that have failed to hold elections recognized as democratic by the international community. "We are not in the revolution business," a senior Bush administration official told RFE/RL in June.
According to Evans, the U.S. strategy is to concentrate on Armenia’s next parliamentary and presidential elections that are due to take place in 2007 and 2008 respectively. “We will be working very intensively with not only the government but other institutions and elements of Armenian society to help Armenia ensure that those elections are indeed free and fair,” he said.
Speaking in his office at the U.S. embassy’s new sprawling compound in Yerevan, the envoy revealed that Washington will launch this fall a “multi-faceted program” designed to facilitate the proper conduct of those polls. “We will have resources,” he said. “We have some very good ideas about specific actions that can be taken to ensure the kind of result that we want to see.”
The U.S. strongly criticized the last Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections that were held in 2003 and were marred by widespread irregularities reported by Western monitors. Evans refused to speculate on how Washington will react if the next polls are also deemed deeply flawed. But he did say that the authorities in Yerevan should be mindful of the fact that the ex-Soviet revolutions were sparked by vote rigging.
“One of the clear lessons of the last few years, particularly in this part of the world, to everyone should be that if elections are falsified, election results are tampered with, there will be trouble of one sort or another. That can be the kind of trouble that we have seen in some countries in the streets, which is always fraught with great risk,” Evans warned.
Opposition leaders maintain that democratic elections in Armenia will be impossible as long as Kocharian and his allies remain in power. They cite this as a key reason for their decision to reject the constitutional changes proposed by the authorities and endorsed by the Council of Europe. They argue that far more important is the fair enforcement of the existing constitution that guarantees free elections, human rights and the rule of law.
“It is not sufficient for good laws to be on the books if the people charged with implementing the laws take arbitrary actions or if the courts do not act in accordance with the laws,” agreed Evans. Nonetheless, he said, constitutional reform would be a “step forward” for Armenia.
The U.S. diplomat dismissed opposition fears that an amended constitution would leave a legal loophole for Kocharian to seek a third term in office in 2008. “I have been assured by some pretty authoritative people that that is not a realistic prospect,” he said.
Kocharian’s spokesman, Victor Soghomonian, likewise assured journalists that the Armenian leader will have “no legal grounds” to stay in power after completing his second term in 2008 if the constitution is amended. “I think that we have no reason or justification to talk about a third term,” Soghomonian said.
Evans further stressed the importance of preventing any fraud at the upcoming constitutional referendum. “We have already made it very clear in a number of ways that this referendum should be carried out as a free and fair vote of the Armenian people,” he said.
Asked whether he thinks the Armenian opposition can not count on any Western support after rejecting the reform, Evans replied: “It’s a hypothetical question. I would not want to say what the reactions of the United States or the Council of Europe or the European Union might be.”
The lack of opposition support has left the authorities with a daunting task of garnering at least 800,000 votes that are needed for the passage of their constitutional draft. Meeting that target requires, among other things, a high voter turnout. However, there are strong indications of widespread popular apathy over the issue.
Evans stated that he continues to believe that Armenia is on the right track right both politically and economically, singling out four consecutive years of double-digit GDP growth reported by its government. “It does not mean that all problems have been solved and that the pace of change is necessarily as rapid as it might be,” he said. “But we do think that things are generally going in the right direction.”