Friday, April 10, 2009

Obama proposes budget, new reports on Armenian politics and Karabakh

First published in February 28, 2009 Armenian Reporter

Washington Briefing
by Emil Sanamyan

Obama proposes 2010 budget, as Congress funds 2009

President Barack Obama made his first budget proposal since taking office, calling for an overall increase in funding for the State Department and other international programs to $51.7 billion, or $4.5 billion more than the Fiscal Year 2009 spending estimate, the White House announced on February 26.

Country-by-country breakdowns, including that for Armenia, were not available at press time. But the overall increase may help reverse the trend of recent years with U.S. aid programs for post-Soviet states declining from $452 million in 2007 to an estimated $346 million in 2009.

Meanwhile, on February 25, Congress passed the Omnibus spending bill for Fiscal Year 2009. According to the Democratic Party managers' report accompanying the legislation and made available to the Armenian Reporter, the legislation set aside $48 million in aid to Armenia and $8 million to Nagorno-Karabakh. There was also $3 million in foreign military financing for Armenia and Azerbaijan, each.

Overall, Armenia aid program remains one of the largest in Europe with only Kosovo ($120.9 million), Ukraine ($71.5 million), Russia ($60 million), and Georgia ($52 million) receiving more funding. Aid to Azerbaijan was set at $18.5 million.

The legislation mirrored closely the spending levels proposed by the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee last summer. (See this page in the Armenian Reporter for July 17, 2008.)

There is also substantial cut in Millennium Challenge Corporation programs, set at $875 million, down from $1.35 billion requested by the Bush administration.

Reports review Armenia’s post-election crisis

Allegations of misconduct by Armenia's law-enforcement agencies during post-electoral collisions last year should be thoroughly investigated, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged as part of a detailed study released on February 25. The watchdog also called on the United States and the European Union to make their engagement with Armenia contingent on such an investigation.

The 64-page HRW report, "Democracy on Rocky Ground: Armenia's Disputed 2008 Presidential Election, Post-Election Violence, and the One-Sided Pursuit of Accountability," is perhaps the most comprehensive available account of Armenia's latest post-election crisis.

The study is based on interviews with 80 witnesses, participants, and victims of the March 1-2 clashes in Yerevan, conducted in March and April last year.

Also released on February 25 was the State Department's annual study of human rights practices worldwide. Its Armenia chapter, in addition to compiling human rights issues throughout 2008, retained a controversial reference to the Armenian republic of Nagorno-Karabakh as a "region of Azerbaijan."

There were community and congressional complaints when the reference was first introduced into the report in 2006. State Department officials claimed at the time the reference did not signal a change in U.S. policy. There was no public reaction when the reference was repeated last year.

Expert recommends change of rhetoric on Karabakh

"Both internationally and locally, the language used about the [Karabakh] dispute needs to change for progress to be made" in the peace process, the leading Western expert on the conflict Thomas de Waal argued in a paper for the Conciliation Resources, a British charity.

The 20-page paper titled, "The Karabakh Trap: Dangers and dilemmas of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict," released online on February 24, provides a review of the status quo in the Armenian-Azerbaijani standoff and outlines potential future scenarios.

As immediate steps, Mr. de Waal recommends "less use by international officials of formulas about ‘territorial integrity' and "self-determination' which obscure more than they reveal" about the conflict; he also urges "an end to the talk of war" by Azerbaijan and a distinction between the rights of Karabakh Armenians and Armenian-controlled former Azerbaijani-populated areas.

"On both sides, [there is a need for] mention of regret for the shared tragedy of war, of the deep common culture and of the necessity and value of living together as neighbours and partners in the future," the expert concludes.

Mr. de Waal is author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, the only thorough study of the conflict available in English, released as a book in 2003.

Polls note Muslim suspicion of U.S., worldwide religiosity

Most Muslims oppose terrorist attacks against civilians but are also suspicious of the United States and endorse the al Qaida objective of removing American military bases from the Middle East, according to surveys conducted last year and released on February 25.

The World Public Opinion poll found that a significant number of respondents in eight Muslim countries studied support attacks on U.S. military forces deployed in the Middle East. While majorities hold a negative view of Osama bin Laden and al Qaida, they also believe that Islamist groups should be allowed to participate in the political process.

In Turkey, 87 percent of respondents believed the United States intends to "weaken and divide" Muslims and 77 percent thought the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf was a "bad idea." Turks were split on attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, with 40 percent disapproving and 39 percent approving of such attacks.

In Azerbaijan, 67 percent of respondents believed the U.S. goal was to undermine Muslims and 66 percent called U.S. military presence a "bad idea." Nevertheless, fully 76 percent of Azerbaijanis also opposed attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq. (Azerbaijan was the only country included in the survey to have had a contingent in Iraq until last year.)

In a separate Gallup poll of worldwide religiosity released on February 9, Azerbaijan was determined to be the least religious majority-Muslim country in the world. Only 21 percent of Azerbaijanis surveyed responded affirmatively when asked if religion was an important part of their life.

By contrast, 75 percent of Georgians and 70 percent of Armenians said they were religious. In the United States two-thirds of respondents described themselves as religious. Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, topped the ranks of the most religious countries worldwide.

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