By Ruben MeloyanThe United States could freeze its multimillion-dollar economic assistance to Armenia if the authorities in Yerevan continue to crack down on dissent, restrict civil liberties and roll back democratic reforms, a senior U.S. diplomat reiterated on Friday.
The Armenian government’s unprecedented crackdown on the opposition that followed last month’s disputed presidential election has prompted serious concern from Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on March 12 that the imposition of a state of emergency in Yerevan “made it necessary” to freeze some of the U.S. aid programs. She appeared to refer to $235.6 million in aid which Washington has promised allocate to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program.
In a March 11 letter to President Robert Kocharian, John Danilovich, chief executive of the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), warned that the U.S. government agency managing the scheme could “suspend or terminate” the five-year aid package. In particular, he sited the 20-day state of emergency and the resulting government ban on independent news reporting.
U.S. officials subsequently welcomed the lifting of emergency rule but said more needs to be done to improve Armenia’s democratic credentials. Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told RFE/RL last week that the authorities should free individuals arrested for their participation in post-election opposition demonstrations and engage in dialogue with opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Speaking to journalists in Yerevan on Friday, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Armenia, Joseph Pennington, stressed that the promised assistance has not been frozen yet. “That decision has not been made,” he said. “We think it is only fair to give the new administration time to turn the situation around. So if we see those negative trends turn into a positive direction, obviously that will have a positive impact on the decisions of MCC.”
“But if we don’t see a commitment on the Armenian side to get back on a democratic trajectory, then obviously the possibility of suspension is very real,” he added.
Pennington noted that Armenia’s eligibility for MCA funding was “in trouble” even before the dramatic post-election events in Yerevan. He pointed to a perceived lack of democratic change, restrictions on press freedom and the scale of government corruption in the country.
The U.S. aid package is designed to significantly reduce rural poverty by upgrading Armenia’s irrigation networks and about 1,000 kilometers of rural roads. According to Armenian and U.S. officials, it would benefit 75 percent of the country’s million-strong rural population.
Kocharian shrugged off last week the U.S. threats to freeze the aid, saying that the Armenian government can find other sources of funding for the rural infrastructure projects. He also scoffed at U.S. President George W. Bush’s failure so far to congratulate Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on his hotly disputed victory in the February 19 presidential election.
Pennington would not be drawn on whether or not Bush will eventually send a congratulatory message to Sarkisian. “I don’t want to speculate on what the White House or Washington may or may not do,” he said. “But what I can say is that the U.S. government is looking forward to working with the new president and getting Armenia back to a democratic trajectory.”
(Photolur photo: Joseph Pennington.)