The Armenian authorities need to hold free elections and embark on other “deep” reforms if they are to fulfill President Serzh Sarkisian’s recent pledge to turn Armenia into a full-fledged democracy, U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch said on Monday.
Yovanovitch also urged to them to strengthen the Armenian civil society, saying that is “vital” for the country’s democratization, prosperity and even national security.
In a December speech before members of his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Sarkisian said the existing political order could lead to “stagnation” without a “deepening of democracy.” He called for a “consistent introduction of European standards into all areas of our state, public and economic lives.”
Yovanovitch pointedly cited the latter passage as she addressed students, civic activists and media representatives at Yerevan State University. “Clearly, the solution is not to restrict freedom of speech or access to ideas, or to restrict the right of citizens to assemble in support of those ideas, but rather to take those ideas – even the criticisms of our opponents – seriously and debate them in public on their merits,” she said.
“The well-developed democracy and more active political dialogue that President Sarkisian spoke of will require deep and difficult changes,” added Yovanovitch. “It will require reforms to Armenia’s laws, institutions, and political culture to expand individual liberty, freedom, and responsibility.”
That, explained the diplomat, means “applying laws consistently to everyone” and holding elections that “meet not only international standards but also the expectations and demands of the Armenian people.” She also stressed the importance of “ensuring that peaceful, lawful assemblies will not be harassed or broken up,” expanding media freedom and pluralism and punishing “criminals who assault journalists.”
“What happens to the young if their entrepreneurial dreams are crushed by unfair competition against politically connected businesses, or if expressing controversial ideas puts them and their families at risk of retribution?” Yovanovitch asked rhetorically.
“What happens if individuals can’t organize and lobby their government, or if the elections to choose their leaders don’t appear to be free and fair? What happens if they are unable to hear, and share, a variety of opinions in the media?”
The United States has criticized the conduct of virtually all major Armenian elections, including the February 2008 vote that formalized the handover of power from former President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian. In its annual global reports, the U.S. State Department has also been very critical of the current and previous Armenian governments’ human rights records.
Still, the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) has repeatedly accused Washington and the West in general of being too lenient towards the Sarkisian administration for geopolitical reasons. The HAK has also dismissed Sarkisian’s democratization pledges as a gimmick.