U.S. President George W. Bush’s emphatic endorsement of Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” and its consequences was meant to demonstrate U.S. support for similar change elsewhere in the world. But it exposed a fundamental contradiction in his administration’s stated pursuit of democratization across the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
While holding up Georgia as a role model for other, less democratic ex-Soviet countries, the United States appears reluctant to go to great lengths in forcing their rulers to stop rigging elections and abusing human rights.
Authorities in at least one of them, Armenia, have surely taken notice. Washington did not condemn them for unleashing unprecedented repression against their political opponents last year and are hardly facing U.S. pressure at the moment.
John Hughes, editor of Armenianow.com, a Yerevan-based online publication, had reason to wonder: “In the U.S. President’s roll call of heroes … was there any thought that as near to Tbilisi as DC is to Delaware Armenian citizens were still recovering from senseless bludgeoning, when last year they tried to hop the democracy train encouraged by the smell of Georgia’s roses but crushed by Armenia’s smelly reality?”
Bush’s pronouncements during his visit to Georgia were rather ambiguous in that regard. “As you watch free people gathering in squares like this across the world, waving their nations’ flags and demanding their God-given rights, you can take pride in this fact: They have been inspired by your example and they take hope in your success,” he told tens of thousands of people in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square on May 10.
Indeed, thousands of disgruntled Armenians were inspired by the Georgian revolt when they took to the streets of Yerevan in April 2004 to demand President Robert Kocharian’s resignation. The most important of the opposition demonstrations at the time took place just meters away from the U.S. embassy in the Armenian capital and was brutally broken up by security forces on the night of April 12-13.
The wholesale beatings and arrests of peaceful demonstrators were followed by the ransacking of the offices of Armenia’s main opposition parties. They were part of the regime’s broader crackdown on dissent that involved mass imprisonments of opposition activists across the country, a transport blockade of Yerevan and worst ever violence against journalists. Human Rights Watch condemned and provided a detailed account of the “cycle of repression.”
The U.S. State Department, however, stopped short of explicitly criticizing Kocharian’s handling of the protests, calling instead for a “dialogue” between the two sides. As if to drive home Washington’s point, the then-U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, dined with Kocharian at a jazz club in Yerevan a few days later. It was the very nightspot where Kocharian’s bodyguards beat to death in September 2001 a man who greeted the Armenian leader in a way they found too familiar.
Despite the glaring lack of U.S. support for their efforts to replicate the Rose Revolution, leaders of Armenia’s increasingly pro-Western opposition have continued to pin their hopes on Washington. Especially after the Bush administration threw its weight behind last November’s “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine.
But as a senior U.S. administration official indicated in a conference call with Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists ahead of Bush’s trip to Tbilisi, Washington does not consider regime change imperative for Armenia’s or Azerbaijan’s democratization. The United States will instead work with “reformers in and outside the two governments,” the official said.
Observers were quick to note that virtually no Armenian oppositionist was invited to the official opening on May 6 of a new U.S. embassy building in Yerevan. Kocharian and most members of his government attended the ceremony. The current U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, subsequently denied snubbing the opposition, citing a lack of space for guests in the vast embassy compound.
Evans has repeatedly said in recent months that Armenia is “headed in the right direction” both politically and economically. “Sometimes progress is not as swift as we’d like, but the basic direction is right,” he told a group of Armenian-Americans last February.
Evans did not specify what he means by “progress.” The two disputed presidential elections held by Kocharian in 1998 and 2003 were criticized by the U.S. in equally strong terms. The 2003 vote was the most violent in Armenia’s post-Soviet history. Yerevan’s human rights record, regularly slammed by the State Department, has also hardly improved under Kocharian.
On the contrary, last year’s crackdown on the Armenian opposition was the worst since the Soviet collapse. The Armenian law-enforcement agencies have since been exercising KGB-style functions of secret police monitoring and suppressing opposition activity. The situation with freedom of speech has likewise deteriorated since the scandalous closure three years ago of Armenia’s sole television station critical of Kocharian.
The ruling regime is thus inherently disinterested in genuine political reform as it would mean an almost certain loss of power and enormous wealth accumulated by its members. Whether the Americans fail to realize this, distrust Kocharian’s foes, or have more overriding regional priorities such as a resolution of the long-running Karabakh conflict is not clear.
Armenianow’s Hughes suggested that the U.S. motives are not necessarily rational. “America loves a winner, especially if he speaks Ivy-League English,” the American editor explained, referring to Georgia’s U.S.-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili. “Coming close (as in Armenia’s failed opposition) doesn’t count in war and democracy pimping.”
(Armenianow.com, May 13; RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 13, May 10; U.S. State Department statement, April 14)