Russian Ambassador Ivan Volinkin’s recent call “to neutralize” Western-funded non-governmental organizations in Armenia is stoking fears among Armenian activists that the country’s pending membership in the Moscow-led Customs Union will prompt a rollback of civil rights.
In an interview published in the May 1-15 edition of the Moscow-based, Armenian newspaper Noyev Kovcheg, Volinkin called for an information campaign “and other methods” to respond to alleged attempts by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “drive a wedge” between Armenia and Russia. As an example of such “methods,” he cited Russia’s own 2013 law, which requires NGOs that receive international financing to register as “foreign agents.” He also proposed that Russia be more active in asserting itself in Armenian media.
The comments sent waves of concern through Armenia’s relatively active civil society sector, one of the few consistent advocates for democratic reforms. Concerns long have existed in Armenia that Yerevan’s planned June accession to a customs union led by Russia will mean kowtowing to Moscow’s political desires.
The fact that officials in Yerevan have not yet responded publicly to Amabassador Volinkin’s comments has fed those fears. Rights activist Artur Sakunts, head of the Helsinki Civil Assembly’s Vanadzor office, asserted that Volkinin’s comments -- as well as similar, previous utterances – reflected a KGB mindset and illustrated Moscow’s distrust of Yerevan.
At the April 12 Annual Conference of Russian Compatriots in Yerevan, Volinkin announced that Moscow would prevent “any aggressive [outside, non-Russian] intervention in the internal affairs of its neighboring counties” that it deemed was meant to promote “ideas that are alien to our minds and hearts.”
Armenian rights activists bristle at the Soviet-era notion of a union of minds and hearts among Armenians and Russians. “Russia is trying to silence independent voices in Armenia -- the moderate, but strong civil society, which they have failed to conquer,” said Sakunts. “This is a problem which has ceased to exist in Belarus and Kazakhstan, but it does exist in Armenia.”
In contrast to the three current members of the Customs Union, Armenia is deemed “partly free” by the Washington,DC-based civil-rights watchdog Freedom House.
The call for a crackdown on international NGOs in Armenia from a foreign ambassador must be addressed, Armenian civil-society organizations and opposition members believe. “If Armenian authorities agree to these instructions, then they will destroy our country’s future with their own hands,” warned Styopa Safarian, secretary of the Heritage Party’s parliamentary faction.
On May 7, more than two dozen Armenian NGOs demanded Ambassador Volkinin’s recall to Moscow, or an official apology from Moscow’s envoy, as well as an “adequate” response from Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration.
“We declare that there aren’t any nongovernmental organizations working against Armenian-Russian friendship and we advise Ambassador Volinkin to organize such witch hunts outside Armenia’s borders,” reads the joint statement. [Editor’s Note: The Open Society Foundation-Armenia, an entity in the Soros foundations network, is among the signatories. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City, a separate part of the network].
Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tigran Balaian told journalists that the government has responded to Ambassador Volinkin, but did not elaborate. “I don’t think any nongovernmental group is able to drive a wedge between Armenia and Russia, the centuries-long friendship of the two peoples and the time-tested partner relations," Balaian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
For opposition parliamentarian Safarian, however, the ambassador’s comment has less to do with “friendly relations” with Yerevan than “about democracy in Armenia.”
The governing Republican Party of Armenia does not seem particularly concerned right now. Members could not be reached for comment.
There’s little doubt that Sargsyan administration’s ties to Russia are solid. For the first time since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a joint military parade with Russian troops took place on May 9, Victory Day, in the northern city of Gyumri. The city hosts a Russian military base.
Political scientist Ruben Mehrabian from Yerevan’s non-profit Center for Political and International Studies sees nothing surprising about the government’s efforts to please Moscow while trying to uphold Armenian sovereignty at the same time. “What is happening right now fits the existing format of Russian-Armenian relations,” said Mehrabian. “This is the miserable state we are in.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.