By David Ignatius
The campaign against Western-backed NGOs is spreading to Armenia, where a former foreign minister is accused of “money laundering” because he accepted contributions from the father of former U.S. presidential candidate Jon Huntsman to support civil-society projects.
The target is Vartan Oskanian, a U.S.-educated Armenian who served as foreign minister from 1998 to 2008 and then started a nongovernmental organization called Civilitas. The allegation is that Jon Huntsman Sr.’s contribution of nearly $2 million, described in detail on Civilitas’s Web site, violates Armenian laws.
At the heart of the case, according to analysts in Armenia, is politics — and whether Armenia will have open, multiparty debates or follow Russia back into Soviet-style authoritarian government. The Armenian National Security Service has revoked Oskanian’s parliamentary immunity, in what’s described by the local media as a prelude to criminal prosecution.
The move to prosecute Oskanian began after he allied himself in early 2012 with the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party and then announced that he would not support a coalition with President Serze Sarkisian and his ruling party. Sarkisian’s government has been a solid ally of Russia; Oskanian is seen as more independent and potentially pro-Western.
The legal battle in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, might seem like a small sideshow on the world stage, but it illustrates an important and worrying trend. In Moscow and other former Soviet capitals, NGOs are being squeezed by the authorities, who see them as potential vehicles for popular protest and political change. This month, Russia announced it was expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has funded many Russian NGOs. A similar squeeze is evident in Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Belarus, as well as in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan.
The Civilitas case is interesting in part because of the involvement of the father of Jon Huntsman. The senior Huntsman has an active philanthropist in Armenian since the 1988 earthquake and is said by Civilitas to have contributed about $20 million to Armenian causes. When Huntsman International, a family company, decided in 2010, to close its Armenian subsidiary, Huntsman Building Products, the company directed in a written message that the proceeds should go to Oskanian for the benefit of Civilitas. The sale produced about $2 million, of which $577,000 went directly to Civilitas and $1.4 million to Oskanian, for future distribution. (Oskanian said he has already sent another $548,000 to Civilitas, with the rest to follow.)
Civilitas produces a newspaper and an Internet television news show, which are independent voices in a country where most media outlets are controlled by the government. Oskanian and Civilitas have attracted international donations, including government grants from Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, the U.K. and the United States. They have also received private grants from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the German Marshall Fund (GMF). (Full disclosure: I am a GMF trustee and have met Oskanian at several international conferences.)
John Heffern, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, visited Civilitas in June, along with a group of European ambassadors, and then spoke with a reporter from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Armenia service. He called the move against the organization “troubling” and added: “Civilitas is a very important partner for us, and we think it’s really important for Armenia politically and for the media.” Civilitas has an international advisory board that includes Stephen Bosworth, a U.S. former ambassador who is dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where Oskanian took a graduate degree.
The decision to go after Oskanian and Huntsman, two prominent and widely respected figures, is scary because it illustrates how far the authorities are willing to go in the former Soviet republics in curtailing debate. Just a few years ago, Russia and its former satellites were brimming with civil-society projects and NGOs, whose links to the West gave a cosmopolitan feel to once-dreary capitals of the old Soviet empire. You can see a figurative door swinging shut in the moves over the past year to suppress Western contamination — and the freer political debate the NGOs have encouraged.