The United States has unveiled a $6 million plan to facilitate the conduct of free and fair elections in Armenia. The program, outlined by the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, on October 27, has a logistical emphasis and does not seem to address the political root cause of the country’s chronic vote rigging.
Speaking at a news conference, Evans stressed that the program was designed with an eye to the next Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections, due in 2007 and 2008 respectively. The remarks came as a further indication that Washington would like to see President Robert Kocharian and his loyal parliament complete their terms in office and does not support opposition efforts to replicate the recent post-Soviet revolutions in Armenia.
The U.S. initiative will begin to be implemented at the beginning of next year. According to Evans, it involves a set of largely technical measures such as training election officials and candidate proxies, publishing Armenian election laws and other relevant documents, and voter education. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which is in charge of its implementation, will also allocate grants to local non-governmental organizations dealing with the electoral process.
Given Armenia’s troubled electoral history, the activities stemming from the program are hardly a threat to a regime that has heavily relied on electoral fraud. None of the presidential and parliamentary elections held by the Kocharian administration were judged to be democratic by Western election monitors. The most recent of those polls, held in 2003, was particularly fraudulent. The causes of widespread ballot box stuffing, forgery of vote protocols and other irregularities reported by international observers are anything but technical or logistical. Armenia’s rulers are simply unwilling to step down just because the majority of voters want them gone. And it is highly doubtful that election officials handpicked by them will display greater respect for law after undergoing U.S. training.
The U.S. government itself strongly criticized Kocharian’s hotly disputed reelection in March 2003, saying that Armenia has missed an important chance to become a democratic state. It reacted similarly to the previous Armenian presidential ballots. So did other Western governments and organizations. However, such moves never entailed any tangible negative consequences for the authorities in Yerevan.
U.S. officials now increasingly emphasize the importance of the freedom and fairness of the next Armenian elections. Whether that means the U.S. response to their falsification would be much tougher is unclear. In an interview last September, Evans refused to speculate on this, saying that such questions are too “hypothetical.”
The administration of President George W. Bush welcomed the bloodless popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan that were triggered by rigged elections. In a speech at the International Republican Institute in Washington last May, Bush said that those revolutions were “just the beginnings” and that people “across the Caucasus and Central Asia” are craving similar change. However, U.S. officials were quick to clarify that such remarks should not be construed as a call for regime change in Armenia and other ex-Soviet states that have failed to hold clean elections. “It’s not our policy to suggest that political change should happen in the streets,” Evans said, reiterating his view that Armenia is now “headed in the right direction.”
That view was echoed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried, who visited Yerevan on October 18. “Armenia is positioned to advance its reforms and therefore to advance its relationships with the United States,” Fried told reporters after longer-than-planned talks with Kocharian.
The U.S. has also joined the Council of Europe and the European Union in endorsing Kocharian’s controversial package of amendments to the Armenian constitution that will be put to a referendum on November 27. American and European officials insist that Western support is not a blank check for the Armenian authorities to push through the amendments at any cost. Still, it has emerged that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will almost certainly not deploy a monitoring mission for the referendum. This will only facilitate possible falsification.
There are different theories about why the U.S. administration is clearly supportive of the Armenian authorities. Some observers believe that it is less-than-impressed with leaders of the Armenian opposition and finds Kocharian more credible and predictable. Others say the Americans will not undercut Kocharian and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev now that they appear close to reaching a long-awaited agreement to resolve the Karabakh conflict, a key U.S. objective in the region. “Washington is now seeking to clinch maximum concessions [on Karabakh] from Armenia’s leadership in exchange for not helping the opposition to use the constitutional referendum as an occasion for revolution,” the Yerevan newspaper Iravunk speculated on November 1.
This theory could be put to the test by U.S. reaction to a possible rigging of the Armenian referendum as well as the November 6 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. According to some media reports, Aliyev and Kocharian have already agreed on the main points of a compromise peace deal. International mediators say it could be finalized as early as this December or the beginning of next year.
(Iravunk, November 1; Haykakan Zhamanak, October 28; Aravot, October 28; RFE/RL Armenia Report, October 18, September 1)