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A mandate for change in Armenia

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Last week, I hosted the first visit of Armenian civil society leaders in Washington since the Velvet Revolution swept Nikol Pashinyan, a prominent journalist targeted and punished by the past regime, into the prime minister’s office.

Like many U.S. policymakers whom we met with, I was moved by their determination and optimism following a historic change in the country last month. Thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s corruption and incompetence. Now, the reformers are in power and have a chance to translate decades of advocacy into real policy change.

{mosads}That’s why it’s more important than ever for the United States and the international community to get behind Pashinyan, a former political prisoner. The moment may be fleeting, but for now he has a mandate for change. A government program adopted on June 7, developed in close consultation with leaders of the protest movement, needs and deserves support from the international community.

The U.S. government and others should help Pashinyan’s government implement his new program, stamp out corruption, and prevent former government officials from destabilizing the new government.

There are signs that the United States is paying attention.

Fortunately, on Monday, U.S. lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and USAID Administrator Mark Green calling for increased assistance to Armenia. This should be an easy thing to do because State and USAID only have to redirect resources—no new money is needed to support the new government’s efforts to fight corruption, promote transparency, and improve transparency. 

Still, relatively little attention has been paid to last month’s swift and relatively non-violent transition that took place in Armenia. That’s not surprising. It’s a tiny country with a small population. Most Americans probably know Armenia because of the popular Kardashian family or because of Armenia’s plea for the United States to recognize the Turkish genocide where more than 2 million Armenians were killed in the early 20th century.

The United States needs to step in to prevent Russia from mucking about with this nascent democratic movement. Armenia should be an important focus for the Trump administration because it has long been a client state of Russia’s and dominated by autocrats and elites who plundered the country’s resources and preyed on its citizens.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s designs on the new Armenia are not clear, Putin seems to care about maintaining Russian hegemony in the South Caucasus. Acting quickly and assertively, Putin might put more than 5,000 Russian troops stationed in Armenia in jeopardy and prompted Armenia to disengage from the Eurasian Economic Union. If Armenia remains closely engaged with Russia, a forceful and coordinated international effort is essential to counter the Kremlin’s inevitable export to Armenia, kleptocracy.

Getting involved sooner rather than later would offer Armenia a chance to shore up its government and improve its economy, which is what many of its neighbors—notably, Ukraine and Georgia—failed to do following their color revolutions.

The influential Armenian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere should work to boost a free market economy, support independent journalism, and disrupt state run industries run by oligarchs, like the Western NIS Enterprise Fund, which was launched with assistance from USAID.

The United States has a couple of tools to deploy from its foreign policy toolkit. The National Endowment for Democracy already allocates $1.3 million a year to Armenia for democracy development. This investment should be increased and coupled with innovative exchanges like the International Visitors Leadership Program

The U.S. Congress runs a few key exchange projects, which would have greater impact if accelerated with Armenia, particularly the Open World Leadership Center and the House Democracy Partnership

What’s more, the U.S. government must demonstrate political solidarity through high-level meetings and statements from organizations like the Organization for Security in Europe (OSCE) to reinforce the tough decisions anticipated transitional justice needs will require. Any number of mechanisms for assistance can also yield necessary electoral code adjustments to ensure legitimate early parliamentary elections reflecting the will of the people. 

The question now is whether U.S. policymakers and the international community stand for Armenia’s future. I hope they do.

Alex T. Johnson is the Senior Policy Advisor for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Policy Center

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