By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
U.S. President George W. Bush has congratulated Serzh Sarkisian on his appointment as Armenia’s new prime minister and urged him to help ensure the proper conduct of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
“We look forward to the parliamentary elections on May 12 and hope that you will help ensure that these elections are free and fair, meet international standards, and bolster the relations between our two countries,” Bush said in a congratulatory message made public by Sarkisian’s office on Tuesday.
The Bush administration strongly criticized Yerevan for serious fraud reported by international observers during the last Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections. Sarkisian, who was the country’s defense minister before replacing the deceased Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on April 4, played a key role in the conduct of those polls.
U.S. officials have said that the upcoming vote is a good opportunity for the Armenian authorities to redeem themselves. They have warned that a repeat of serious fraud would jeopardize the release of $235 million in additional U.S. economic assistance to Armenia. Still, the U.S. administration is unlikely to ostracize Yerevan in the event of another deeply flawed ballot now that it is hoping to broker a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict before the end of this year.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried implied last week that Washington does not expect the Armenian elections to be fully democratic. “We don't expect perfection,” he told journalists. “We don't expect to go from deeply flawed to perfect, but we do expect to see substantial forward progress.”
Fried noted at the same time that Armenia should have been “way ahead of Georgia” in terms of democratic reforms given the strength of its worldwide Diaspora and its links with Europe and the United States. “Armenia should be doing better,” he said. “It should be a leader. It should be a prospering country. It has all the ingredients.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian repeated his government’s election-related assurances on Tuesday as he spoke at a meeting in Vienna of the main decision-making body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "This is a huge test for Armenia's democracy and I firmly believe that we together - the government, the opposition, the public and the OSCE - we together can indeed hold a normal election that will greatly contribute to Armenia's further democratization processes," he said.
Sarkisian, in the meantime, toured the Aragatsotn and Armavir regions in southwestern Armenia, meeting local residents and listening to their grievance. Even though he claimed that the trip has no connection with the elections, it was clearly aimed at shoring up popular support for his Republican Party (HHK), which intends to again win the largest number of parliament seats. Sarkisian was accompanied by Khachik Manukian, the HHK’s candidate in a single-mandate constituency covering the mostly rural area.
Voters in the regional town of Talin were clearly reluctant to heed Sarkisian’s implicit calls for Manukian’s reelection to the National Assembly. “He hasn’t met with people here since the last election,” said one man. “How can we vote for him?”
“Are you sure another candidate would do a much better job?” countered Sarkisian.
The meetings in Talin and other local communities began with moments of silence observed in memory of the late Prime Minister Markarian. Local residents complained to Sarkisian about widespread unemployment, serious problems with supplies of drinking water and irrigation, and the poor condition of community schools and hospitals.
The Armenian premier assured them that those problems will be solved over time but cautioned against expectations of rapid betterment. “If somebody promises you to solve all problems in one or two years, then rest assured that that person is a liar,” he said, adding that at least four more years are needed for a “qualitative change” in the socioeconomic situation in regions outside Yerevan.
Sarkisian also defended the Armenian government’s economic track record, arguing that the country’s Gross Domestic Product and state budget have doubled in the last seven years.