A new vision for Armenia?

Eurasianet Organization
June 24 2004

Cory Welt: 6/24/04
A EurasiaNet Commentary

As the United States and the European Union step up their engagement
with the South Caucasus in the wake of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution,”
Armenia is taking steps not to be left behind.

During a recent visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian
outlined a bold vision for political reform, regional security, and
cooperation with neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive]. His June 14 speech at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provided a welcome change
to the disheartening news that has come out of Armenia of late.

The Armenian government’s brutal crackdown against opposition
protests this April, its attacks on journalists, the ransacking of
opposition headquarters, and political arrests were a blatant
contradiction of democratic standards. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. Two subsequent court decisions provided
further evidence of Armenia’s ambiguous commitment to rule of law – a
demonstrator who struck a police officer with a plastic bottle
received an 18-month prison sentence, while gang members who
intimidated and assaulted protestors and journalists at an April
demonstration were fined less than $200.

In his public address, Oskanian acknowledged the need for Armenia’s
political climate to improve and expressed a barely concealed hope
that the US government’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), an
initiative that will provide $1 billion in aid to 16 developing
countries in 2004, would be a mechanism for doing so. Oskanian
asserted that Armenia’s inclusion in the program has made the country
“more focused” on matters of governance, democracy, rule of law, and
human rights. He conceded that progress in democracy building
“require[s] further political will” on the part of the government and
the opposition.

Armenia’s inclusion in the MCA had initially raised eyebrows. But
Oskanian’s remarks appeared to be more than mere PR pitches. The
minister also laid out means for allowing Armenia’s opposition to
reconcile its differences with the government — and for Yerevan to
meet the criteria to maintain MCA funding.

While chiding Armenia’s political opposition for “its aggressive
attitude” towards the authorities, Oskanian revealed a standing
government offer to give opposition deputies – who hold some 20 percent
of the National Assembly’s 131 seats – veto rights on three issues:
amendments to the election code, constitutional reform, and
anti-corruption legislation. These veto rights, Oskanian declared,
would “force” the majority to work with the opposition to make “the
necessary changes that will benefit Armenia.”

Whether the government in Yerevan will seize the opportunity to
implement this plan for political dialogue remains in doubt, however.

At remarks before the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly
(PACE) on June 24, Prime Minister Robert Kocharian rebuffed that
body’s earlier criticism of his government’s heavy-handed crackdown
on opposition protests in March and April of this year, saying that
the Council of Europe is “not the best place” to settle arguments
with political opponents. ” Unlike Georgia, a neighbor whose November
2003 “Rose Revolution” serves as a model for the Armenian opposition,
Armenia, Kocharian argued, ” is developing dynamically, its
government is quite efficient and its democratic achievements are
propped up by institutional structures, including police, which are
able to maintain public order,”

Such a stance promises to reinforce doubts in Washington about
Armenia’s entry into the MCA. Two of the key criteria for the MCA
selection process are countries’ commitment to political freedom and
good governance.

Commenting on Armenia’s entry into the MCA, Carlos Pascual, the State
Department’s Coordinator for Assistance to Europe and Eurasia, has
noted that the awarding of funding to Armenia would take into
consideration the quality of the proposals submitted by the
government as well as its record on defense of civil liberties. “The
expectation, in order to be able to move forward with the program, is
that there would be progress on these issues and not movement
backwards,” Pascua told a May 18 news conference in Yerevan.

That message was further underlined by Paul Applegarth, the chief
executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the body
charged by Congress with administering MCA funds. During a visit to
Armenia and Georgia earlier this month, Applegarth stated that the
proposal review process would consider not only whether proposals
would promote economic growth – the MCA’s main objective – but also
whether governments rely on an “inclusive” decision-making process to
draw up their proposals and outline steps for improving the
political, economic, and social indicators used to determine their
eligibility for MCA funding.

Opposition leaders have declared the “first stage” of their efforts
to unseat the incumbent government finished after failing to
galvanize large numbers of supporters. Returning to parliament with
concessions akin to the ones Oskanian described would be a
face-saving maneuver for Armenia’s opposition, whose popularity has
sagged since the failure of this spring’s protests. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive].

It could also help Armenia stay on track for receiving MCA funds, a
key mechanism for the United States to continue prodding the Armenian
government to adopt valuable reform. While the opposition’s failure
to mount a serious challenge might give Armenian authorities
confidence to further inhibit official respect for rule of law, the
government’s newfound security could, combined with the influence of
Millennium Challenge conditionality, also encourage it to move in a
positive direction.

Other incentives exist as well. Armenia has recently modified its
approach to national security, seeking to complement a longstanding
alliance with Russia with military engagement with the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States. Yet though such a
dialogue could provide an opening for additional democratic reform,
the U.S. and its NATO allies lack pressing strategic imperatives for
providing what Oskanian termed “a better [security] shield for
Armenia.” To justify a more intensive engagement with Armenia, the US
and NATO are more likely to look for advances in democracy building
and rule of law than in military policy.

Another stumbling block to the establishment of a healthy
NATO-Armenia relationship is Armenia’s lack of diplomatic relations
with its NATO neighbor, Turkey. But, here, too, Oskanian suggested an
opportunity for change. In his speech, Oskanian exhorted Turkey to
“take the lead” in furthering Euro-Atlantic engagement with the South
Caucasus by normalizing relations with Armenia and opening its
lengthy border.

Oskanian disputed claims that normalization would require Turkish
concessions, specifically the recognition of the 1915 Armenian
genocide and border adjustments. The foreign minister declared that
while it is Armenia’s “moral obligation” to raise the genocide issue,
“recognition is not a precondition” for diplomatic relations. When
asked about potential Armenian irredentist claims, Oskanian noted
that all such issues could be adequately addressed in the protocols
that accompany the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Turkey, however, insists that Armenia make progress in resolving its
conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh before any
normalization of its relations with Yerevan occurs. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive].

On this, the long-standing bug-bear of Armenian foreign policy,
Oskanian offered cautious cooperation at best. Oblique references
were made to existing efforts with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar
Mammadyarov, with whom Oskanian met in Prague on June 22, to devise a
two-track conflict resolution plan that would simultaneously define
Nagorno-Karabagh’s political status and set out a clear timetable for
Armenia to withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territories and for the
resettlement of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons.

Without specifying the exact political status Armenia seeks for
Nagorno-Karabagh, Oskanian instead referred to the “principles”
established in negotiations between Armenian President Robert
Kocharian and the late Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev in Key
West, Florida in 2001. Armenia insists these involve Azerbaijan’s
surrender of sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabagh in exchange for
Armenia’s withdrawal from most of the occupied territories and the
establishment of a road link across Armenia connecting the
Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to the rest of Azerbaijan.
Oskanian attributed Azerbaijani denials that any such principles had
been established to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev’s fragile hold
on power.

For Oskanian’s vision to come to pass, however, a tremendous amount
of effort from Armenia’s friends, and, even, adversaries and
political opponents, must be made. Most importantly, his vision of
dialogue, development, and peace must be promoted, not only by the
Foreign Ministry, but by the powers that rule Armenia today.

Editor’s Note: Cory Welt is a Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia
Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.