By Shakeh Avoyan and Emil Danielyan
The United States’s willingness to provide additional multimillion-dollar assistance to Armenia reflects its faith in the Armenian leadership’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on Tuesday.
The U.S. government reaffirmed earlier this week Yerevan’s eligibility to receive financial aid under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program of promoting political and economic reforms in developing countries of the world. The Armenian government has formally applied for $175 million in MCA funding and is awaiting a response from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency managing the scheme.
Armenian officials say it is likely to be positive. Their optimism is shared by U.S. diplomats.
“This is proof of the fact that the democratization processes going on in Armenia are being positively assessed by countries like the United States,” Oskanian said at a public discussion of his government’s MCA bid.
“We are receiving such large sums from the United States because they believe in Armenia’s future,” he told representatives of farmers' unions and other non-governmental organizations who attended the gathering. “Only 16 out of 120 countries that have opted for democratization [are eligible to] receive such sums.”
The government would like to spend most of the requested aid, $118 million, on restoring Armenia’s Soviet-era irrigation networks. The rest of the money would be spent on rebuilding battered roads in rural regions of the country. MCC executives appear to be largely satisfied with the proposed use of extra U.S. aid. But it is still not known when the agency will make a final decision on the issue.
Democratization and respect for human rights is supposed to be among the criteria which the U.S. has used in making Armenia and 15 other developing nations eligible for the program launched by President George W. Bush last year. However, MCC representatives' discussions with the Armenian authorities appear to have focused only on the socioeconomic merits of Yerevan’s bid. It is unclear whether Washington has demanded any specific political reforms in return for allocating the requested sum.
Freedom House, a New York-based human rights organization, expressed concern about the political situation in Armenia last week. “Political rights in Armenia are severely restricted and … have been eroding,” it said in a statement. “Although the regime has passed recent reform measures, including to the electoral code, these steps do not suggest a comprehensive, institutional commitment to democracy.”
Freedom House specifically cited the troubled presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003, government control of Armenian courts, mass arrests of opposition activists and “torture within the police system.” “It is important that only those countries that truly shine be rewarded,” the group's executive director, Jennifer Windsor, said, calling for stronger U.S. pressure on Armenia and other “weakest performers” among the 16 countries eligible for MCA funding.
The U.S. government, however, appears to be more positive about the state of political reform in Armenia, having clearly indicated its desire to see President Robert Kocharian complete his second term in office in 2008. Its ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, has repeatedly stated that the country is “headed in the right direction,” both politically and economically. Evans has also endorsed Kocharian’s constitutional amendments that have been put to a referendum.
According to Oskanian, this is another reason why Armenians should vote for those amendments on November 27. “Our constitutional reforms are receiving a greater meaning as the world’s attention will be centered on the Republic of Armenia on November 27,” he said. “I feel that this is going to be an important day for us and I am convinced that our people will make the right decision.”