By Shakeh AvoyanArmenia is inching closer to becoming a democratic state and therefore deserves to be rewarded with additional U.S. economic assistance, two U.S. congressmen said during a visit to Yerevan on Wednesday.
The $235 million assistance to be provided under the Bush administration’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program was the main focus of Representatives Jim Kolbe’s and Scott Garrett’s talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian leaders. The two lawmakers, accompanied by the head of the U.S. government agency running the program, also met with local businessmen and representatives of non-governmental organizations.
Kolbe, who chairs the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, described the meetings as “very productive.” “We believe that this is a dynamic new way of delivering foreign assistance to countries that have shown a commitment to the rule of law and to an open society,” he said, referring to MCA. “Transformational economic development must go hand in hand with political democracy, and that’s why Armenia has been chosen [for MCA funding].”
“We believe this is a country which is moving forward in that area,” he added.
Speaking to reporters, Kolbe specifically noted that he trusts the Kocharian administration’s pledges to ensure proper conduct of Armenia’s next parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2007 and 2008 respectively. But he said the United States will closely monitor the entire electoral processes to see if they meet Yerevan’s MCA commitments. “We would not embark on this program if we were not confident that the Armenian authorities are committed to free elections,” he said.
Kocharian was quoted by his office as assuring the visiting congressmen and the chief executive of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, John Danilovich, that “Armenia remains committed to strengthening democracy and liberalism.”
That commitment has been repeatedly questioned by the Armenian opposition and the West, however. None of the national elections held in Armenia under Kocharian’s rule has been recognized as free and fair by the U.S. State Department. In an annual global report issued last month, the department also said that the Armenian government’s human rights record remains “poor.”
Still, U.S. officials now sound unusually optimistic about the freedom and fairness of the next Armenian elections. Washington has approved recently $7 million in election-related aid to Armenia which will be largely spent on training members of electoral commissions and boosting voters’ awareness of their rights.
Armenian opposition leaders say, however, that this will not address the root causes of the country’s chronic vote rigging. They say the ruling regime will not endanger its hold on power by willingly holding a clean election.