Saturday, August 2, 2008

U.S. reacts to March 1 violence in Armenia

This was first published in March 8, 2008 Armenian Reporter (for detailed coverage of March 1-2 events in Yerevan visit

Washington Briefing
by Emil Sanamyan

Sadness, concern, calls for dialogue over Armenian crisis

The United States and international human rights and media organizations issued statements and dispatched envoys as Armenia’s post-election crisis took a violent turn last weekend.

“The U.S. deeply regrets today’s unrest in Yerevan, Armenia, and calls on all sides to avoid further violence, act fully within the law, exercise maximum restraint, and resume political dialogue,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement issued on March 1, as reports began to come in that the confrontation between protestors and police had turned deadly.

Mr. McCormack said that the responsibility lay with both the government and opposition “to re-establish order and return to political dialogue.” The statement said that Assistant Secretary Dan Fried telephoned Armenia’s prime minister and president-elect Serge Sargsian to reiterate these points.

U.S. chargĂ© d’affaires in Armenia Joe Pennington delivered the same message to the opposition.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza arrived in Yerevan on March 6 to “facilitate a dialogue” between the government and opposition to defuse tensions. (Mr. Bryza was expected to arrive earlier in the week, but was diverted to Azerbaijan to negotiate a return to cease-fire after a deadly skirmish on the Line of Contact in Karabakh on March 4; see the story on Page A1 of this issue.)

Prior to his arrival, Mr. Bryza told the Associated Press that the U.S. “deplores” the violence, but would not criticize the government’s handling of the protests.

In his Yerevan meetings, Mr. Bryza praised the leadership exercised by Mr. Sargsian, who has called for dialogue and said the government shares the blame in failing to prevent the violence.

“In principle we support you,” the Prime Minister’s press office reported the U.S. diplomat as saying. “We want you to succeed, and we want Armenia to succeed.”

According to the office of President Robert Kocharian, Mr. Bryza said in a meeting with Mr. Kocharian that the U.S. understood the need for the Armenian president to restore law and order, but also expressed concerns over persisting tensions.

According to the State Department, Mr. Bryza was also to call for a lifting of the state of emergency as soon as possible.

The 20-day emergency decree issued on March 1, as riots in Yerevan turned deadly, has helped bring about relative calm. But it also restricts Armenian mass media to circulating only official information on domestic issues, and has led a number of opposition and independent press outlets to decide to stop publishing altogether.

International human rights groups have focused their calls on lifting the decree. “While the exact details of the situation are still unclear, a state of emergency that bans all demonstrations – including peaceful ones – as well as independent reporting by the media is excessive and unnecessary,” said Paula Schriefer of Freedom House, in a March 3 statement.

The New York Times, which dispatched its Istanbul-based correspondent to Yerevan as the events unfolded, published an editorial on March 7, in which the newspaper called the state of emergency “brutal” and appeared to blame the government’s actions, not the protests that led to it, for the violence.

The editorial called on the Bush Administration to send a tougher message to Yerevan. It added, however, that “this is not a case of pure democratic virtue against pure authoritarian evil,” recalling that the opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, who claims victory “without credible evidence,” as the Times editorial conceded, had a record of election rigging and crackdowns while he was president.

Mr. Bryza was preceded by envoys from the European Union, Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. (See page A5 of this issue.)

British Parliament member John Prescott, who co-led the Western observers during the election, returned to Yerevan and in talks with senior officials and opposition leaders encouraged efforts to build public trust through dialogue.

According to the government press service, Mr. Prescott also stressed how important it is that all parties abide by the decision of Armenia’s Constitutional Court, which this week examined opposition appeals for overturning election results. The court’s decision is expected this weekend.

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