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U.S. Set To Release Promised Extra Aid To Armenia

By Emil Danielyan

The United States has signaled the impending release of $235.5 million in additional economic assistance to Armenia, saying that it has received credible reassurances that the administration of President Robert Kocharian is committed to democracy and good governance.

The sum was approved last month by a U.S. government agency managing President George W. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a program designed to promote political and economic reforms in developing nations. But the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) made its disbursement conditional on “corrective steps” that would end chronic vote rigging and civil rights violations in Armenia.

The Armenian authorities have since scrambled to reassure the Bush administration about their democratic credentials that were most recently called into question by their handling of the November constitutional referendum. Those efforts seem to have been successful, with the MCC chief executive, John Danilovich, saying that he is satisfied with Kocharian’s and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian’s written responses sent to Washington in recent weeks.

In a statement issued late Monday, MCC said Danilovich has asked the corporation’s governing board to press ahead with the allocation of the multimillion-dollar aid to Yerevan. MCC also posted on its website a copy of his second letter to Kocharian dated January 18. “On reading your letter, I was pleased to note your Government’s commitment to sustaining the democratic reforms that are essential to good governance,” Danilovich wrote.

This contrasts with the U.S. official’s first letter to Kocharian which deplored his regime’s “lack of transparency and commitment to open and fair elections.” The letter sent on December 16 pointed to serious fraud reported during the referendum.

In his January 12 message to Danilovich, also disclosed by MCC, Oskanian said the authorities in Yerevan “acknowledge the deficiencies that you cite in reference to the Constitutional Referendum.” “We truly regret that an opportunity such as the referendum, the outcome of which were to be constitutional changes that will obviously benefit our people, has instead cast shadows on the election process,” he wrote.

Oskanian went on to blame the Armenian opposition for the reported vote rigging. “By boycotting the referendum, they forced the collapse of an electoral monitoring system that is, by law, based on checks and balances by the political parties,” he claimed.

However, the presence of opposition activists in polling stations did not prevent ballot box stuffing and other serious irregularities during the previous elections held in Armenia. The U.S. State Department criticized them as undemocratic. Citing the conduct of the referendum, Armenian opposition leaders say the next national elections due in 2007 and 2008 will be just as fraudulent.

Oskanian insisted, however, that the Kocharian administration will do its best to ensure the freedom and fairness of the polls. “We are ready to work with the US government, the EU and the OSCE and are ready to develop an accurate voter registry with independent verification, to conduct voter education campaigns, to increase public interest and involvement in the period leading up to and during the elections themselves and to provide for effective electoral adjudication training and mechanisms,” he said. Yerevan will provide Washington with “up-to-date information on steps taken towards irrevocable and verifiable progress in democratic development,” he added.

Danilovich found these assurances convincing. “I am heartened by your Government’s commitment to pursue existing cases of fraudulent voting activity and violence against journalists, as well as your receptivity to outside assistance for training in election preparation, administration and monitoring,” he told Kocharian.

The U.S. official apparently referred to criminal proceedings launched recently against three little-known Armenian citizens each of whom allegedly cast an extra ballot in place of their relatives and friends on referendum day. One of them was reportedly tried and fined 100,000 drams ($220) by a court in Gyumri earlier this month.

None of the men was a member of the Kocharian-controlled electoral commissions that conducted the November 27 vote. Nor are they known to hold any positions in government. Some opposition leaders have dismisses the cases brought against them as a “joke.”

The Armenian law-enforcement authorities have also prosecuted a female opposition supporter who is said to have unintentionally hit a state television reporter during a pre-referendum rally in Yerevan. By contrast, they refused to prosecute anyone in connection with the severe beatings of several other journalists who were attacked by security forces while photographing the brutal break-up of another opposition protest in April 2004.

The forthcoming U.S. assistance is based on the Armenian government’s proposals submitted to MCC last spring. Most of the money, $146 million, would be spent on rebuilding and expanding the country’s battered irrigation networks. Another $67 million would go to pay for capital repairs of about 1,000 kilometers of rural roads that have fallen into disrepair since the Soviet collapse.

Danilovich warned that the implementation of the aid program could be suspended or even terminated in case of a “significant slippage in the indicators or actions inconsistent with the principles that support Armenia’s eligibility” for MCA.

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