How the United States Can Support Armenia’s Fledgling Democracy
By Tatevik Khachatryan
In April 2018, Armenians took to the streets to demand better governance and more democracy—and, in what seems like a rare occurrence these days, the good guys won. Led by the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, the pro-democracy activists swept aside a corrupt and entrenched government and took power.
Eight months later, in Armenia’s first democratic election in a generation, reformers cemented their victory. Pashinyan and his My Step Alliance won more than 70 percent of the vote; he will now serve a full term as prime minister. Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Armenia, which ran the country for the past 20 years, failed to gain a single seat in the new parliament.
Now, Armenia has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the criminal justice system and implement sweeping anticorruption laws, and the United States—which has its own interest in ensuring stability in a volatile region—has a chance to help achieve those goals.
First, the U.S. government can start by reviving the U.S.–Armenia Joint Economic Task Force. The Task Force has been the main vehicle for trade between the two countries since 1999, but it is a modest agreement, only focusing on trade and economic development.
A more expansive agreement between the two countries could help Armenia fight corruption, which for years has eroded Armenia’s economy. Transparency International has ranked Armenia 107th out of 180 countries, worldwide, for levels of corruption. Close to 30 percent of Armenia’s population lives below the national poverty line, and the country struggles with high unemployment and low labor force participation—particularly among women.
Organizations that focus on key issues such as anticorruption and legal reforms can act as both a partner to and a check on the government, which would be essential as Pashinyan seeks to build a long-term democracy. However, this can only occur if civil society organizations are allowed to freely operate as nonpartisan entities.
The U.S. government could help the new prime minister, who has said he is committed to eradicating corruption, and recover stolen assets. Specifically, the United States could regularly exchange information on assets that oligarchs who backed the previous regime siphoned out of Armenia to the United States—and get them back.
For example, the U.S. Department of Justice could provide Armenia with updates on measures it is taking, such as prosecutions or individual sanctions, against kleptocrats. It could facilitate exchange programs for Armenian investigators and prosecutors to help the former learn about how to use effective investigative strategies—such as financial forensics—to investigate corruption. For decades, Armenia’s old regime let ineffective training practices flourish. Armenia’s existing anticorruption institutions, such as the national Anticorruption Council, for example, failed to prosecute corrupt officials—and were accused of accepting bribes, as well as spending their budgets on personal expenses.
Coming out of that corruption-filled milieu, Armenia’s new class of civil servants will need outside assistance. Specialists from the U.S. law enforcement agencies could advise the Armenian government on legal processes and reforms that would reduce the rate of conflicts of interest while strengthening the integrity of the civil service in general.
Second, the United States could help the Armenian government rebuild the independence of the judiciary by helping to make its law enforcement agencies—and its judges, prosecutors, and police officers—more understanding of civil rights and anticorruption practices. The U.S. State Department and the Department of Justice could help Armenian law enforcement hire outside experts to improve its police service and train prosecutors (and judges) on the protection of human rights and professional integrity.
An expanded Task Force could also allow the U.S. government to increase its support of human rights defenders and other civil society organizations. For example, the Task Force could establish provisions that would ensure that NGOs are able to participate in regular meetings with the new government. The agreement could call for annual meetings between these organizations, after which public reports about the meetings’ findings could be released. This would help enhance accountability with the new government and Armenian citizens. The United States could also offer technical experts from the State Department to advise new Armenian civil servants on best practices for engaging with civil society.
Reforming a country plagued by a history of corruption can’t be done overnight. Armenia has significant challenges ahead of it that will take time to overcome. To assist Armenia in its journey to sustainable democracy, the United States could expand the Task Force and commit to enhancing the relationship it has with Yerevan. Armenia now has a unique opportunity to overcome years of autocracy and corruption, and the United States can play a significant part in that.