YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Three members of the US House of Representatives expressed concern about the Armenian government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition as they met President Serzh Sarkisian and other senior officials in Yerevan over the weekend.
Representatives Adam Schiff, Wayne Gilchrest and Allyson Schwartz, all of them members of the House Democracy Assistance Commission, underlined those concerns by also meeting with close aides to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
While in Armenia, Schiff, who headed the delegation, visited the Dzidzernagapert Genocide Memorial Complex, where he planted a tree in the memorial’s garden and signed his name in a book for distinguished visitors located in the Dzidzernagapert museum.
During his meetings, Schiff spoke of a "step backward from democracy" taken by Armenia following last February’s disputed presidential election.
"We are concerned with the problems that occurred during the election, the violence that occurred after the election," the California Democrat told RFE/RL after the talks. "We consider ourselves very strong friends of Armenia. We want a good and successful future for Armenia, a democratic Armenia."
"So we are here to try to assess the situation and talk with the Armenian government about how we can help move the government further in the direction of democracy," he said.
Echoing statemen’s by senior US diplomats, Schiff said he and his colleagues are particularly worried about the mass arrests of Ter-Petrosian supporters on charges mainly stemming from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot troops and opposition protesters. The Armenian authorities maintain that the violence, which left at least ten people dead, was the result of Ter-Petrosian’s botched attempt to seize power by force. They say the corresponding charges brought against dozens of oppositionists are not politically motivated.
The United States and other Western powers believe, however, that at least some of the detainees were jailed for their peaceful political activities. Washington has threatened to suspend $236 million in economic assistance to Armenia, promised under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program, if the Armenian government fails to release them and to end the broader crackdown on the opposition.
"We’ve raised concern about the detention of anyone who was detained for political reasons, and we certainly hope that the government addresses these issues," said Schiff. "No one is advocating that people that committed violent crimes be released or not be subject to trial. But people should not be detained or put to trial for merely expressing their views."
At the same time Schiff, who represents one of the most Armenian-populated areas of the US and is known for his strong advocacy of pro-Armenian legislative measures, made it clear that he is against the suspension of MCA funding.
"It’s enormously important for people particularly in rural areas [of Armenia], and it would be a great shame if that program was threatened by this step backward from democracy," he said.
Responding to the US criticism, Sarkisian argued that the Armenian presidential ballot was judged by Western observers to have been administered "mostly in accordance" with democratic standards. "We will seek to ensure that the next elections are much better," he told the visiting legislators on Saturday, according to the presidential press service.
Sarkisian was also reported to call for a "deepening of US-Armenian relations" which he said is an "important prerequisite for Armenia’s development and regional stability." He commended Schiff and his colleagues for maintaining "warm relations" with the Armenian-American community.
Highlighting those relations, Schiff drafted earlier this month a bill that calls on the administration of President George W. Bush to press Turkey to unconditionally lift its long-running economic blockade of Armenia. It also requires the US State Department to report to Congress about concrete steps taken by Washington in that effort.
The Bush administration has for years been urging Turkey to drop its preconditions for opening its border and establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia.
"I think that more does need to be done," Schiff said during a visit to RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau. "This economic blockade is an anachronism. This is something that, as a thing of the distant past, has no place in the Caucasus or Europe or elsewhere. We want to really light a fire under our own administration."
When asked about chances of the passage of the bill, he said, "I am optimistic but I would anticipate that Turkey will fight it, like it’s fought some of my other resolutions."
One of those resolutions recognized as Genocide the 1915-1923 massacres of over 1 million Armenia’s in Ottoman Turkey. The House of Representatives looked set to pass it last fall but backed down under strong pressure from the White House, which warned of serious damage to US-Turkish relations. Schiff and other sponsors of the proposed legislation have pledged to continue to lobby for its passage.
Schiff would not say whether they will make another attempt to push the genocide resolution, endorsed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, through the full chamber this year.
"Before we bring it up on the House floor we want to make sure that we have the votes to pass the House floor," he said. "We don’t want to bring it up and not succeed and have Turkey spin that as the Congress voting against genocide recognition."
"I believe that the Congress will recognize the genocide," he added. "I only hope that we do it while there are still some survivors left. And time is running out."