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U.S. Envoy Calls For 'Deep Changes' In Armenia

U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch

U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch

The U.S. ambassador to Armenia says Yerevan needs to hold free elections and embark on other "deep" reforms if it is to fulfill President Serzh Sarkisian's recent pledge to turn Armenia into a full-fledged democracy, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Marie Yovanovitch's call -- in an address to students, civic activists, and media representatives at Yerevan State University today -- came a day ahead of a planned opposition demonstration to mark the third anniversary of postelection unrest that left 10 people dead.

Yovanovitch also urged authorities to strengthen civil society, saying it is "vital" for the country's democratization, prosperity, and even national security.

In a December speech before members of his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Sarkisian said the existing political order could lead to "stagnation" without a "deepening of democracy." He called for a "consistent introduction of European standards into all areas of our state, public, and economic lives."

Yovanovitch cited the latter passage in her address today.

"Clearly, the solution is not to restrict freedom of speech or access to ideas, or to restrict the right of citizens to assemble in support of those ideas, but rather to take those ideas -- even the criticisms of our opponents -- seriously and debate them in public on their merits," she said.

"The well-developed democracy and more active political dialogue that President [Sarkisian] spoke of will require deep and difficult changes," she added. "It will require reforms to Armenia's laws, institutions, and political culture to expand individual liberty, freedom, and responsibility."

That, Yovanovitch said, means "applying laws consistently to everyone" and holding elections that "meet not only international standards but also the expectations and demands of the Armenian people." She also stressed the importance of "ensuring that peaceful, lawful assemblies will not be harassed or broken up," expanding media freedom and pluralism, and punishing "criminals who assault journalists."

"What happens to the young if their entrepreneurial dreams are crushed by unfair competition against politically connected businesses, or if expressing controversial ideas puts them and their families at risk of retribution?" Yovanovitch asked.

"What happens if individuals can't organize and lobby their government, or if the elections to choose their leaders don't appear to be free and fair? What happens if they are unable to hear, and share, a variety of opinions in the media?"

The United States has criticized the conduct of virtually all major Armenian elections, including the February 2008 vote that formalized the handover of power from former President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian.