Armenians Who Need Help Today

Imagine what the Armenian diaspora might have accomplished had it worked as hard for democracy in Armenia as it did for congressional recognition of the genocide Armenians suffered nearly a century ago. It's even possible that modern Armenia would be as democratic as modern Turkey.

The Armenian American community notched a political victory last week when the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 27 to 21 for a resolution demanding that the U.S. government officially acknowledge that Turkey committed genocide against the Armenian people early in the 20th century. The Turkish government insists that, while terrible things happened, there was no genocide. The Bush administration, reluctant to offend an important ally, lobbied hard against the resolution.

There are passionate arguments on both sides of this fight: the urgency of facing history honestly, on one hand; unease over attempting to resolve such matters by political declaration, on the other. But what is sad, when members of Congress are hailing the vote as a victory for human rights, is how poorly human rights fare in Armenia today.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, none of its 15 component republics seemed better poised to evolve democratically than Armenia. A beautiful country of mountains and pastures and vineyards, it had a clearer sense of national identity than most, with a long pre-Soviet history as a nation; its own language, alphabet and church; and a passionate diaspora, many of whose members were ready to bring not only their skills but also their habits of democracy and civil society to Yerevan. Of an estimated 10 million ethnic Armenians in the world, only 3 million dwell in Armenia; more than 2 million live in Russia, but about 1.5 million are in the United States.

Things began well, with the honest election of a former dissident as president. But authoritarian tendencies soon emerged, the former dissident rigged his reelection in 1996, and things went downhill from there. As Freedom House noted last year, "all national elections held in Armenia since independence have been marred by some degree of ballot stuffing, vote rigging, and similar irregularities." Meanwhile, opposition politicians have been jailed, protests have been brutally suppressed, and broadcast media have been taken under government control.

Conditions in Armenia are better than in some post-Soviet republics. Though corruption is endemic, the economy is growing and ranks relatively high in some measures of freedom for private enterprise. A parliamentary election in the spring was conducted more fairly than past polls. The ruling oligarchs tolerate some opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations and non-official newspapers.

But conditions also are a lot worse than in some republics, notably Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Many members of their diasporas also returned to their ancestral homelands, where they became passionate advocates not only of national rebirth but also of democracy and corruption-free capitalism.

Why the difference? Armenia was sidetracked early on by a war with neighboring Azerbaijan over an Armenian enclave inside that country. The enclave is under Armenian control today, but a cease-fire has not given way to a peace settlement. Consequently, the two main Armenian American lobbying organizations in Washington have focused more on security questions -- opposing arms sales to Azerbaijan, for example, and opposing Turkey, Azerbaijan's ally -- than on promoting democracy in Yerevan. Armenia's rulers have known that, no matter how they trample on individual rights at home, the lobbying groups will cover for them here.

The heads of both U.S. organizations told me that their groups have worked, sometimes quietly, to promote human rights and civil society in Armenia. Undoubtedly their influence would be limited, no matter how hard they tried.

But what if they had tried as fervently as they did to win Wednesday's vote? It's hard not to think that 3 million Armenians might be less poor and more free than they are today.

Fred Hiatt