Armenia has become the eighth country to receive a grant under the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge foreign aid program. Accepting the $235-million grant at a State Department ceremony Monday, Armenia's foreign minister said his government will be responsive to international criticism of its handling of a constitutional referendum last November.
The Millennium Challenge program, a key initiative of the Bush administration, makes aid money contingent on recipient countries' meeting commitments to democratization, open markets, and fighting corruption.
In accepting the $235-million Millennium Challenge grant to fight rural poverty in his country, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian pledged that his government will take action to address international concerns about the constitutional vote.
The United States and European countries were among the critics of the November 27 referendum on a package of constitutional amendments.
Armenian opposition parties challenged official results that said 65 per cent of eligible voters had turned out and approved the package by a 93 percent margin. Council of Europe observers said the vote had been marred by fraud and ballot-box stuffing.
The semi-private Millennium Challenge Corporation, which administers the aid program, reiterated U.S. concern when it announced the five-year grant in December.
At Monday's ceremony attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Armenian foreign minister said corrective steps are already under way to assure the fairness of legislative elections in May of 2007 and a presidential vote in 2008:
"Our task until then is to partner with the United States and European governments to implement the necessary corrective steps to improve the conditions necessary for an honest and fair expression of peoples' voices," said Vartan Oskanian. "In this regard, we welcome the American proposal for certain structural reforms and education and public outreach efforts. We have already begun the process of verifying voter lists. We are making progress in reforming the electoral law with the active participation and agreement of all political forces in our parliament."
For her part, Secretary Rice noted that Armenia had acknowledged the "difficulties" of last year's vote and promised corrective actions. She said the United States stands ready to help insure that the legislative and presidential elections are free and fair.
The Armenia program aims at helping the country's rural poor by building nearly 1,000 kilometers of roads in the countryside and improving irrigation and water distribution systems.
Foreign Minister Oskanian said two-thirds of rural Armenians do not have access to central water systems, and efforts to move crops to market are hampered by a poor secondary road system.
Nonetheless, he said despite the unresolved conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and other problems, including a lack of mineral wealth, the Armenian government's liberal policies have produced the highest economic growth rates in the region.
At the grant ceremony, attended by leaders of the Armenian-American community, among others, he pledged that the process of democratic and economic reform in his country is "irreversible."
The grant to Armenia is the second-largest thus far under the Millennium Challenge program. It brings the total amount of funds committed to $1.5 billion to a total of eight countries, mainly in Africa and Latin America.
Started in 2004, the program got off to a slow start as would-be recipient-countries wrestled with complicated eligibility rules, but it has gained momentum after a personnel shakeup last year.
The Bush administration had hoped to be able to dispense $5 billion a year under the program but congressional funding has fallen well short of that goal.