Armenia: The United States is Muted on the Armenian Political Crisis
By Joshua Kucera 03/05/08
The continuing political crisis Armenia stemming from the March 1 violence in Yerevan has unfolded with little comment from the United States, either from the US government or from influential Armenian-American lobbying groups.
The root cause of the crisis is found in the disputed presidential election on February 19, in which Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was declared the winner. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Asserting that widespread fraud enabled Sarkisian’s victory, the main challenger Levon Ter-Petrossian mounted a permanent protest in Yerevan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A government attempt to disperse the demonstrators during the pre-dawn hours of March 1 sparked an escalating confrontation that culminated in armed clashes. Officially, eight people died in the clashes, but witnesses believe the death toll could be substantially higher. Under state of emergency regulations imposed on March 1, the government enjoys broad powers to restrict press freedom, making verification of competing claims next to impossible. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A statement by Karekin II, the spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, urged that both sides compromise. "Let us practice wisdom and reasoning, refraining from fraternal hostility and actions that deepen the discord. All problems and issues which trouble us, shall be solved through peaceful means, respect for the law and the safe paths of dialogue,” Karekin II said in a statement issued March 3. "Each of us must answer for our actions before history and our generations. Let us not risk the stability of our country with further unwise actions.”
Kocharian on March 5 vigorously defended his decision to impose a state of emergency, which in addition to restricting the flow on information, also allows for the limitation of non-governmental organization activity and the roll-back of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly. The president appeared to place all blame for developments on his political opponents, and vowed to “to track down all inciters, masterminds and executors of the unrest,” according to comments distributed by the official Armenpress news agency. Kocharian also stated that he had no intention of extending the state of emergency, which is due to expire on March 20.
The government’s media blackout has silenced at least five Armenian news outlets. And in a move that is sure to create difficulties for US-Armenian relations, President Robert Kocharian’s adminsitration has also suspended broadcasts of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and has blocked the RFE/RL website in Armenia.
"Censorship and harassment of the media are the antithesis of democracy," James K. Glassman, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all non-military US international broadcasting, said in a written statement issued march 5. "Our broadcasters wish to serve the audience in Armenia by providing reliable news and information at this critical juncture. Unfortunately, that is not an option at the moment, unless you are a patient and resourceful Internet user."
There are several reasons for the relative US silence on recent developments in Armenia, analysts say. On a geopolitical level, Armenia is not deemed of vital strategic importance by Washington, as the Caucasus country lies outside the Caspian Basin energy corridor that passes through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
In addition, the Armenian crisis is not viewed in Washington as a struggle pitting democratic forces against an authoritarian regime. It is more of an internecine struggle, in which a dispute among an entrenched political elite over the division of spoils has escalated to the point where it got out of control. Ter-Petrosian and his supporters are generally not seen as being any more democratically oriented than the incumbent Kocharian-Sarkisian team. To substantiate that point, some observers point to the fact that in the 1996 presidential election, Ter-Petroisian, who was running then as an incumbent, was accused of many of the same electoral abuses that he now assails the Kocharian administration for.
Finally, Armenian-American diaspora groups, which wield significant power in Washington’s policy towards Armenia, have chosen not to call attention to the crisis there.
The State Department issued a mildly worded statement on March 1, condemning the violence. The statement implied equal responsibility for both the government and the protesters. “Any unlawful actions such as violence and looting worsen the situation and must stop. We hope that the State of Emergency declared today will be lifted promptly and that political dialogue resumes,” the statement said.
But that is not enough, said Cory Welt, associate director of the Eurasian Strategy Project at Georgetown University. “The United States and the Europeans should certainly do one thing – stop pretending there is democratic progress where there is none. It’s one thing to shy away from giving the street false cause for optimism; it is another to be so patronizing about ‘baby steps’ toward democracy when there are none.”
“What makes the Armenian case so unusual is the willingness of the United States and Europe to move forward with business as usual when there is no business to be done - Armenia is neither a security nor an energy partner for the West,” Welt said.
Given the recent developments, Welt suggested that Washington should suspend aid from the Millennium Challenge Account, which is supposed to encourage Armenia to build democratic institutions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The flow of Millennium Challenge assistance should not resume until there is a full, independent accounting for the violence on March 1 and 2, Welt added.
There has also been a relatively muted response from Congress, including from the members who are active in pro-Armenian issues. Armenian lobby groups have not pressed Congress to get involved in the crisis in Armenia, according to one Congressional staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity. That is partly because the lobby groups have political ties with the parties in power in Armenia, but partly because they feel that focusing on Armenia’s negatives is bad public relations.
“Frankly, in terms of the Armenian-American lobby, they get really ginned up and energized about the Armenian genocide resolution, but they don't really want to look at corruption, because that doesn't put them in a very favorable light,” the staffer said. “This doesn't help them with their agenda.” [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Armenian National Committee of America did not release any statement on the crisis, and as of the morning of March 5 its website carried no mention of the situation unfolding in Armenia. The Armenian Assembly of America did post a statement on its website, calling on all sides to “adhere to the rule of law and to refrain from violence, as well as to ensure that the media will cover the events as they take place with fairness and balance.” Neither organization returned calls and emails by a EurasiaNet correspondent seeking comment.
“Without energy or particular strategic importance, Armenia is left in the United States with the politically quite strong Armenian diaspora,” Welt said. “In the end, it is not the lobbies that should be held responsible, but their representatives in Congress who have far greater reason to be troubled by the hypocrisy of avoiding discussion or comparison of the internal state of Armenia when shaping US policy in its confrontations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.”
Part of the diaspora groups’ ambivalence can be explained by the fact that the main opposition candidate, Ter-Petrossian, strove to weaken the political strength of the Armenian diaspora when he was in office. In addition, his willingness to negotiate with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh angered members of the diaspora groups. Ultimately, Ter-Petrosian’s willingness to negotiate on the Karabakh issue initiated a chain of events that led to his resignation in 1998. He was replaced by Kocharian.
The Karabakh contact line dividing Armenian and Azerbaijani troops was the scene of heavy fighting on March 4-5. Azerbaijani officials on March 5 claimed that Armenian forces launched an attack, in part out of a desire to distract attention from events in Yerevan. Armenian officials countered that Azerbaijani forces initiated the clash. The death toll was placed at between eight and 16. Kocharian, in commenting on the fighting, stated that officials in Baku were trying to take advantage of Armenia’s domestic difficulties. "In all likelihood Azerbaijani leaders thought that because of recent events in Yerevan, the army of Nagorno-Karabakh has lost its vigilance or communication,” Kocharian told Armenpress
In addition, the Armenian diaspora groups tend to disengage from Armenian political issues because the corruption and authoritarianism conflict with the American values that they have acquired, said Yossi Shain, a political scientist at Georgetown University who studies the politics of diaspora groups.
“One can argue that in the mind of the diaspora, Armenia as a homeland has served more as a notion, perhaps a mythical vision than as a concrete sovereign state,” Shain said. “If the [Armenian] state represents something hostile to their ideology, they will remove themselves. They will be more keen to identify with Armenia as a whole than to identify with one regime, if it violates what they consider to be the values of America.”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.