BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
While U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy was announcing last week the U.S. will halt funding for life-saving de-mining programs in Artsakh and instead shift those funds to “preparing populations for peace,” she proudly announced that the U.S. had spent millions of dollars to help Armenia grapple with the COVID-19 crisis and funded efforts to build or advance democracy in Armenia.
On Thursday, an investigation by the London-based Open Democracy revealed details of how a U.S. State Department grant, reportedly worth $50,000, went to a group whose website is spreading lies and misinformation about COVID-19 at a time when Armenia’s infection rate is at an all time high. What the Open Democracy report, and a subsequent article published by The Guardian, do not reveal is that the Armenia-based grant recipient—an organization called Armenian Association of Young Doctors—was aligned with factions and media outlets loyal to former president Serzh Sarkisian, whose apparatus has spent countless dollars funding media outlets and groups to advance an anti-government policy that aims to sow domestic unrest and possibly return the old regime to power.
Armenian Association of Young Doctors has created a website, medmedia.am, through which it provides daily updates on public health issues, with its opinion sections featuring pieces that have called COVID-19 a “fake pandemic” and falsely reported that a morgue offered to pay hundreds of thousands of drams to dead patient’s families if they claimed the death had been caused by the coronavirus. The op-ed pieces on medmedia.am are largely reprints of social media posts by individuals, whose credentials as “experts” are not provided.
On Friday, Armenia reported that the number of new cases of COVID-19 in reached a new record high. Since the beginning of May the reported cases in Armenia quadrupled from around 2,200 on May 2 to 9,492 on June 1, with a reported death toll of 139.
The State Department declined to comment to Open Democracy on the size of the grant provided to Armenian Association of Young Doctors or the review process. A post on the U.S. Embassy’s website says grants under the Democracy Commission Small Grants Program – which are worth up to $50,000 – are awarded on a competitive basis to local NGOs and are meant to focus on issues like transparency and accountability in governance, advancing human rights, eliminating corruption, and enhancing economic growth and development. Armenian Association of Young Doctors received the grant under the aforementioned program in 2019 and launched medmedia.am later that year.
Let’s look beyond the COVID-19 falsehoods appearing in medmedia.am and look at the broader context of U.S.’s funding in countries like Armenia, as well as the intentions of civic or media organizations like Open Democracy, whose report, as well as the subsequent The Guardian article, have been shared widely by Armenians who fall on varying political spectrums both in Armenia and the Diaspora.
This is where the “preparing populations for peace” concept that generally applies to Artsakh and the ongoing Karabakh settlement process comes into play. The U.S. in notorious for funding such programs, under which reporters, activists and civil society organization members from counties that are in direct conflict come together for so-called dialogue on peace and cooperation. The U.S. advanced the Turkey-Armenia Protocols through a project called the “Olive Tree Initiative” where Armenians and Turks, both from the countries of origin as well as in their respective diasporas, would come together, hold hands and sing kumbaya, all the while pretending that the historic and political context of the conflict were all but forgotten in favor of this utopian peaceful co-existence that the U.S. was advancing.
A similar effort took place in the fall when journalists from Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan visited the three countries and upon their return wrote glowing reports about the commonalities that brought them together rather the crux of the Artsakh issue, which is that for almost 30 years the Karabakh conflict has been mediated based on principles that wholly favor Azerbaijan, which is claiming Artsakh—and Armenia—to be part of its “historic” country and ignoring the fact that Azerbaijan did not exist as a country until 1918.
Similar U.S.-funded projects have and are taking place in Palestine and Israel, for example, where farmers from both sides are producing olive oil as a symbol of peaceful co-existence between the two peoples, completely ignoring the on-the-ground military and political realities of that conflict.
At the same time, Open Democracy also has it own agenda. One of its largest contributors is the financier billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which most likely is also funding some of the other supporters Open Democracy covets. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soros has spent billions of dollars advancing an American brand of democracy in largely third-world and developing nations. Depending on who is at the White House, his policies either converge or veer away from the sitting administration. In today’s configurations, with President Trump essentially having declared all-out war on Soros, his Open Society Foundation and the U.S. State Department are funding programs in countries like Armenia that fall in opposing political spectrums causing undue civil unrest and fomenting discord within civil society.
In fact, while Armenia’s past leaders were busy looting the national wealth and lining their pockets, and while other civil society organizations were eagerly carving their own place in that landscape, under the guise of advancing democracy, the U.S. and organizations like Soros’ Open Society Foundation poured billions of dollars into Armenia and essentially reared a generation of young Western-minded democracy activists who were trained to ignore the national and historical nuances of the Armenian reality. Add to this equation similar funding by the European Union and Russia and you get a generation that has been ignored by its government and political forces and now is driven by allegiances to these opposing forces.
Civil unrest in Armenia is beneficial for the U.S., because spending American taxpayer dollars on NGO’s such as the Armenian Association of Young Doctors, enables Washington to keep Yerevan in check. Similarly, successive governments’ decisions to sell off Armenia’s critical infrastructure and important development to Russia, allows Moscow to keep Yerevan in tow.
Despite its endorsements of the Pashinyan administration and the strides in advancing democracy in Armenia, the U.S. will continue to fund efforts, such as the fake-news spewing medmedia.am, which can have serious public health consequences in Armenia. The fact that the U.S. has opted out of funding the life-saving humanitarian de-mining program in Artsakh and instead will spend my and your taxpayer dollars on the nebulous “preparing populations for peace” agenda signals that the U.S. is neither concerned with human lives in Artsakh, nor is it frankly concerned with advancing democracy in Armenia.
The White House is upset at Yerevan for not falling in line with advancing its sanctions on Iran and Syria. So, in response, the State Department is funding groups loyal to the toppled regime, in hopes of turning the volume up on social media platforms, which have emerged as the only source of information for Armenians because of the abysmal state of the press in the country.
Dr. Gevorg Grigoryan, the founder of the Armenian Association of young doctors, has a disclaimer on medmedia.am saying that the site is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department. He told the Guardian on Thursday that the U.S. Embassy in Armenia had contacted him with “concerns” about op-eds and articles on the site. But, he said, “I am sure I was able to answer all those questions and those concerns disappeared.”
The Administration refused Congressional and Armenian-American calls to reprogram $25 million in already earmarked aid to Armenia for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, boasting instead the $1.2 million it has spend on providing protective gear to Armenians during the global crisis.
We are heartened that the U.S. Embassy in Armenia is “concerned” with the falsehoods being spread by one of the NGOs that it has funded. Shouldn’t the threat to public health and actual lives of Armenians propel the Embassy to be more than just “concerned” and take a more decisive step?
Today it’s falsehoods about COVID-19. Before it was the benefits of Turks and Armenians living in harmony. How else is the U.S. going to endanger Armenian lives in its efforts to advance democracy and “prepare populations for peace”?