With the recent celebration of the 21st anniversary of Armenia’s independence, we should note that Americans of Armenian descent have helped, participated or, in many instances, just watched from the sidelines as the country has tried to stabilize itself in a tough neighborhood where it is surrounded by hostile neighbors like Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The country is far from perfect, and like most of the former Soviet countries, is predominantly run by oligarchs who control most of the business and government infrastructure.
Building a democracy is a long-term proposition. You have to educate a new generation on grassroots activism that forces change and, gradually, separation between government institutions and business interests -- creating accountable government that looks after the interests of its people, not just the elite.
You only have to look at our own country to conclude that democracy building has to be an on-going effort. The cynicism about whether an individual can make a difference is one of the biggest hurdles in developing countries and is really no different here in the U.S.
The underlying reasons for such cynicism may be somewhat different, but the scary thing is that it still exists in our country despite all the opportunities here in our democracy compared to countries run by oligarchs and dictators.
The movement toward participatory democracy has begun to take hold in Armenia, where ordinary people are starting to challenge the oligarchs and hold them accountable, especially in the court of public opinion. This is a good trend and must be supported.
The U.S. has one of the largest embassies in the region located in Armenia, which can be viewed as a vote of confidence that Armenia has good prospects of blossoming into a true democracy. Through the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), there are many organizations in Armenia working on participatory democracy and institution building programs. Many American-Armenians have moved to Armenia from Glendale and other neighboring areas to work in these organizations.
Recently, however, the U.S. Embassy in Armenia and the State Department did something dumb, which has hurt the U.S government’s credibility. In recent weeks, as anti-American violence was spreading across Islamic countries due to the amateur anti-Islam film, the U.S. Embassy in Armenia was one of the first to issue a security warning for U.S. citizens in Armenia (a Christian country) while other Islamic countries like Azerbaijan and many others had nothing of the sort.
This baffled both American Armenians and those in Armenia because there have never been any anti-American protests there or even such sentiment.
Armenia has been one of the most hospitable countries for Americans and the U.S., much of it due to the close connection between American Armenians and their connections back to Armenia.
The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan has yet to produce a justifiable reason for this warning. The State Department claims that they told all missions across the world to be extra vigilant, but the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan chose to issue an alert.
So either the staff in Yerevan are ignorant about the country they are sitting in and they can’t distinguish between Armenia and other Islamic countries, or they have a hidden political agenda.
In either case, whether its moves like the security alert -- or more fundamental policy flaws like the State Department refusing to properly recognize the Armenian Genocide or refusing to hold Azerbaijan accountable on anything on the Nagorno Karabagh issue -- it seriously compromises the U.S’ position in these countries.
The citizens of these fledgling democracies need a role model to point to if they are to instigate change in their own countries. When the U.S. chooses political expediency over being aligned with American democratic and human rights principles, it undermines our ability to have a credible voice in these countries. And all because bureaucrats and the elite in Washington, D.C. are pursuing short-sighted agendas.
ZANKU ARMENIAN is a Glendale resident and a corporate communications professional. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.