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Armenia: Key U.S. Diplomat Calls For Roundtable In Wake Of Clashes

  • Andrew Tully

Opposition protesters in Yerevan on March 1 (Photolur) Armenians have been living under strict restrictions since March 1, when police cracked down on opposition supporters who were protesting against alleged fraud in the February 19 presidential election. The U.S. administration's chief diplomat for the Caucasus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, is calling for a roundtable meeting of Armenia's political leaders to resolve the crisis. Bryza spoke of his efforts with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully.


RFE/RL: Despite your calls on the Armenian government to stop arresting opposition activists, they're still being arrested. What can be done about it?


Matthew Bryza: It's ultimately a problem that has to be repaired by the government of Armenia, of course, and we call on the government of Armenia to cease arrests of political leaders and to restore the democratic momentum that was what had characterized Armenia's political development until the period just after this last election. So it's really up to the government of Armenia to take steps to restore this democratic momentum. So, one way besides ceasing these arrests is to restore media freedom and then to lift the state of emergency as soon as possible, and then finally launch a nationwide roundtable -- and by nationwide I mean including all major political parties -- to chart the course forward to strengthen Armenia's democracy.


RFE/RL: As many independent journalists have reported, opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian is technically under house arrest. There are indications that the government might arrest him formally. For example, today Armenian Minister of Justice Gevorg Danielian told the French news agency AFP that there is enough evidence to press criminal charges against him. Meanwhile, Armenia's general prosecutor said in his statement on March 7 that Ter-Petrossian "hypnotized the people and used psychological sabotage, all kinds of psychological tricks, mechanisms of deception." What is your reaction?


Bryza: Wow, that's quite a statement. My reaction is that [regarding] Mr. Ter-Petrossian -- it's disputed whether he's under house arrest, if you talk to the government of Armenia. If you talk to him, he probably says he's under house arrest. I went to visit him at his house and found it a useful conversation in which I encouraged him to participate fully in dialogue with the government of Armenia to do what I mentioned before: to chart a way forward to restore democratic momentum in Armenian society.


There is much criticism. People have been sending [criticism] in both directions -- both toward the opposition and Mr. Ter-Petrossian and the government -- in terms of what happened on March 1 with the violent demonstrations. Mr. Ter-Petrossian is obviously a very well-known politician who is very skillful in his oration, so he does have the ability to inspire people, and he was doing so through his repeated appearances at the demonstrations in Theater Square in Yerevan. So that's what he was doing: He was being a politician. And in the aftermath of what happened on March 1, as I said, there were a lot of allegations that both the government and the opposition sides were using violence. Now, no one accuses Mr. Ter-Petrossian himself of using violence, but there were people in the crowd who did use violence, and in many cases perhaps they would say "provoked." But in any case this wasn't an instance of a particular leader having magical powers. Mr. Ter-Petrossian was being a politician.


RFE/RL: Armenian authorities say security forces used no firearms when they dispersed the demonstration on March 1. The opposition says Special Forces fired indiscriminately on demonstrators and that there are more casualties than the government has reported. There was a suggestion by the EU presidency to conduct an independent investigation. Do you support the idea?


Bryza: We support the idea of an independent investigation, and it's useful. But, that said, I think it'll be very difficult ever to assess exactly how the tragically violent events transpired. Now what we need to do is move forward; to repair the damage of the election by prosecuting people who used violence unlawfully or who were violating election law. So that is looking back a little bit, but we need to get beyond the backward-looking and move forward.... We urge Mr. Ter-Petrossian to participate constructively in a dialogue with all the political leaders, including the government of Armenia, and find a way to repair the damage done by the election, and also chart a way to strengthen Armenia's democratic institutions.


RFE/RL: There are only a few countries that block citizens' access to the Internet, and now Armenia is one of them. The media in Armenia is in fact not operational today. No opposition or independent newspapers can be published, only progovernment media. RFE/RL has also been prevented from broadcasting. Despite your requests, the Armenian government has shown no intention of lifting the media restrictions. In your interview with the Associated Press, you said, "It seems clear that the reaction by the government was harsh and brutal." Do you think it is time for President George W. Bush to get involved in solving Armenia's crisis?


Bryza: I think we have a very useful and effective means of communication with the leadership of Armenia and the opposition. I also think it's essential, as does my government...that these media freedoms be restored. And I also have a feeling that in the government of Armenia, people are thinking through how to do that, and so we can only urge them to restore those media freedoms as quickly as possible.


Brutality occurred on both sides, and I also tried to make that clear; in fact I've tried to make that clear in all of my interviews. The problem is that once people get into a confrontational situation in the street, and if there is not a free flow of information through an independent media, each side tends to demonize the other. And it's much more difficult to bring back under control the emotions that are stoked when government and opposition people are confronting each other in the street. So the brutality refers to what happened overall.


Ultimately, of course, governments have responsibility for the use of government force against civilians. Civilians have a responsibility as well to protest peacefully and to use mechanisms within the rule of law to express themselves. So that's what we call on everybody to do, and again we underscore that to keep tension at the lowest possible level, it's important that there be free media so that all sorts of unfounded rumors don't percolate through society and raise tensions even higher.


RFE/RL: And what about President Bush's possible involvement?


Bryza: As I said, we have very effective channels of communication right now, we're communicating at many levels, so I'm comfortable that the way we're communicating now with the government is satisfactory. President Bush will make his own decision, and if he wishes to become involved, that's of course his decision. He's the head of our government, he is the ultimate determiner of our foreign policy, and it's up to him to decide when to get involved in any issue.


RFE/RL: As you mentioned earlier, the United States is urging Armenians to start a dialogue, and a roundtable was suggested as a possible format of talks between the government and the opposition. Could you be more specific?


Bryza: We would like to see representatives of all the largest political parties -- opposition, progovernment, coalition members -- we'd very much like to see them all coming together for a discussion representing all the voters of Armenia for talks about the future of Armenia's democratic institutions, and talks about how to strengthen those institutions. What the specific topics would be is up to the participants, of course, but the process of them resolving their country's political future through discussions at the bargaining table rather than in the streets is the way to build a healthy democracy.


RFE/RL: What is Russia's role in this political crisis? Are you also talking with Moscow about the events in Armenia? Will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raise the issue in her meetings with Russian officials when she visits Moscow later this month?


Bryza: We talk to our colleagues in the Russian government and Russian diplomatic circles about many issues that have to do with the Caucasus. We remain in constant contact about developments in Armenia as well as in Azerbaijan, so of course we're in general contact. We're not coordinating, however, our overall diplomatic responses in terms of what step we think needs to be taken next. The United States has a clear vision of what developing a genuine democracy means, and we're pursuing that objective on our own, but in close collaboration with the private citizens and the government of Armenia.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report


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