The transcript of the April 17 U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on post-election unrest in Armenia is here.

In his presentation, U.S. Department of State representative Mathew Bryza said in part:

Of course, that has to do with the human beings, the people, the proud members of the Armenian American diaspora, who have contributed so much to our society. But of course, it also has to do with our support of the basic human rights, liberties, democratic values that the citizens of Armenia rightfully deserve and in fact have enjoyed. And fundamentally, this is a question of human dignity.

Irregularities in the recent election and the violent aftermath marked a significant setback for democracy in Armenia, and I just sense from my visits there both a week ago today — in fact, when I was last there for the inauguration, seven and eight days ago, and a month before that — that there was a significant shock imposed upon Armenian society.

Unfortunately, tragically, the violence that ensued is unprecedented for the South Caucasus in a period after an election. And so, of course, it’s completely appropriate to do just what the commissioners did, which was express condolences for the victims.

Two of them were police officers. Eight of them were civilians not associated with the security services. Obviously, every single one of those deaths pains all of us in this room, and there are so many friends. Everyone’s a friend of Armenia in here today. And I also welcome my friend Vigan and also my fellow graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy here.

A special personal welcome to you, Vigan. Thank you for being here with us.

We simply deplore the killing. And we may never know, and probably will never know, who started it, how it began, how a peaceful protest devolved into this level of violence.

We do know, though, that generally in the international community, we, the international community, hold governments responsible for the use of violence against civilians and for the use of violence under such political circumstances.

We are deeply disappointed that dialogue that was ensuing between the government and the opposition lost out — lost out in this case to force and to violence. So as I said, it’s a tragedy for all of Armenia.

Our goal now is to work with the government of Armenia and President Sargsyan to help elicit dramatic steps that will restore a sense of democratic momentum in the control, not to please us, not to sustain our assistance, but because, well, we believe it when we hear the elected president of Armenia say this is what he wants to do.

And we believe it, and we know, that this is the ambition of the people of Armenia. I felt that overwhelmingly this time during this trip. So many people came up to me — be it the wives of detainees or common people on the street — urging us to be as clear and constructive as possible in eliciting those sorts of dramatic steps to restore democratic momentum.

As we think about looking ahead, first it’s useful again to place our relationship with Armenia in a context, the context of our strategic interests with Armenia. We have security interests. We have regional economic interests.

And we have, of course, a deep interest in seeing democratic and market economic reform continue so that all citizens of Armenia have the freedom to exercise and enjoy their internationally recognized human rights.

On security, we are deeply grateful for Armenia’s contributions in Iraq, where it has 46 soldiers on the ground, serving with our soldiers in the coalition, as well as in Kosovo, where Armenia has contributed 35 soldiers.

We would welcome even greater contributions. We’ve had discussions. We hope we can move forward in a way that only deepens our security partnership.

[…]

The central question of security matters in Armenia is indeed, as Congressman Smith pointed out, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. I speak in my capacity also as ministry co-chair, and I have spent so much effort and love on this issue over the last couple of years.

I can say, following our meetings my fellow co-chairs and I had in Bucharest two weeks ago with Presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev, we hope that there will soon be a meeting between those two presidents to rejuvenate a negotiation process that has made, I would argue, a dramatic amount of progress in the last two and a half years toward finalizing a set of basic principles that would essentially become a framework agreement for the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

Again, this would be a framework agreement. It’s not the final agreement. That would have to be negotiated in the form of a peace treaty that will take some time — hopefully, not too much time — but if and when these basic principles are agreed, Armenia and Azerbaijan together will have made a dramatic step forward — in fact, changed the political, diplomatic and economic map in the Caucasus and in Europe in a profound way. Officially, our policy is to support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but to hold that a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict requires a negotiated compromise on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status.

In a broader strategic sense, Armenia is obviously at a crucial crossroads, situated as it is between Russia in the north, Iran in the south, and then between Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, where Armenia suffers from closed borders.

So in our second set of interests, regional economic cooperation and integration of Armenia into regional economic structures, I emphasize how much we look forward to and work toward full normalization of Armenia’s relations with Turkey, and of course, then with Azerbaijan.

We’re focusing a lot on the Turkey-Armenia relationship now. We hope there will soon be restoration of full diplomatic relations, opening of borders, restoration of electricity and transportation links, and greater access to regional markets that that will bring for Armenia.

There are questions about the possibility of commissions to take another look at the tragic, horrible historical questions of 1915, which I know we’ll get into in the question and answer session.

In summary, we know that all of these issues are interrelated and are of profound importance to Armenians and all of their friends around the world, whether we’re talking about history or about the current plight and current conditions of our Armenian friends in Armenia today.

Eventually, and hopefully quickly, we will see normalization of Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan, and as that happens, or when that happens, we hope that that will provide Armenia an impetus to scale back its energy cooperation with Iran.

Armenia finds itself in a very difficult situation when it comes to energy. It is cut off from the energy flows from the Caspian region, beginning in Azerbaijan. It is largely dependent on flows of natural gas from Russia and has expanded its natural gas flows to include Iran.

And we understand the difficult situation that Armenia finds itself in due to these restrictions — energy imports and general trade — that it suffers from the East and West.

At the same time, though, we hope Armenia will continue to work with us to fulfill the international community’s demands that Iran abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran ceases its nuclear enrichment programs.

Finally, the third area that is clearly the most germane to today’s discussion and really is at the foundation of everything we do with Armenia is our effort and our assistance and our commitment to helping Armenia advance its democratic and market economic reform to strengthen individual rights, human rights, and political and economic freedoms.

Our assistance programs, working with the government of Armenia, have made some important progress over the years. And we are grateful to the United States Congress for always being so generous and encouraging us and helping us and facilitating our work with Armenia that has produced some significant results.

For example, there has been strong reduction in rural poverty. We have now seen again Armenia restore double-digit economic growth, which it enjoyed back in the late 1990s. We have worked very actively with civil society to promote democracy and protect fundamental rights.

And maybe garnering the most attention in the last few years has been Armenia’s successful completion of an agreement with the Millennium Challenge Corporation to launch a compact that should come to a total of $235 million over the next few years.

In President Bush’s administration, I think it’s fair to argue that when a country enters into the Millennium Challenge program, it has received in many ways the ultimate seal of approval or commendation from our government that the country is on the right track, because the program aims to reward commitment to reform and is sustained if that commitment to reform is sustained and demonstrated through progress.

So let’s go back, then, for a little while, then, to the elections, now that I’ve painted a broader picture in the context for our relations with Armenia.

In the lead-up to the February 19th presidential election, we did see some initial positive signs. We encouraged then Prime Minister Sargsyan to invite observers from the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE to come to Armenia to observe the election. And he did that. And they came.

We also encouraged the parliament and the government to advance electoral reforms, and some of those were passed. And we welcome those.

At the same time, already in the pre-election period, our concerns began to increase about the overall electoral environment. We observed that the media environment was definitely not free from bias, to put it gently. We sensed that independent media outlets faced intimidation and harassment in many cases, unfortunately.

Examples of that include Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Gala TV. And there were widespread allegations of misuse of administrative resources, a problem that is not unique by any means to Armenia. In fact, none of these problems are unique to Armenia in an election context. But they were there and began to raise our concerns.

As you noted, Mr. Chairman, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of OSCE initially assessed that the February 19th election was conducted mostly in line with OSCE standards. Those were initial reports based on initial flows of information.

Unfortunately, as more information came in over ensuing days, we saw there were credible claims of ballot stuffing and intimidation, some reports of beatings of poll workers and proxies, and significant reports of vote buying and other irregularities.

Again, these are not problems that are unique to Armenia by any means. Many friends here of Armenia in the room have helped me remember how similar things have happened elsewhere in South Caucasus countries in recent elections. But nonetheless, we’re talking about Armenia today.

Speaking of which, there were recounts in Armenia, in which, as the OSCE observed, there were discrepancies and mistakes, which raised questions over the impartiality of the electoral commissions. And OSCE observers reported there was harassment against them.

In the wake of these sorts of concerns, we saw mass protests for 10 days in Armenia in Yerevan. As I noted in the beginning, we in the U.S. government and others in the international community and in Europe pressed the government of Armenia to maintain the negotiations, refrain from violence, allow the protest to continue on Opera Square.

On March 1st, however, the police and military forces entered the square. We, again, will never know what exactly happened, but the police entered the square, as then President Kocharian told me, to collect weapons that the government of Armenia had believed were being gathered in some of the tents there on the square.

Clashes broke out — some, perhaps, there on the square, it appears, although many in the government of Armenia will deny that any clashes took place on the square. I don’t know. We weren’t there. We did not have witnesses there on the square.

But we do know that later in the day near the French embassy in the environs, there was a truly tragic clash, as we said, that left 10 dead, two of them police and eight of then civilians. Again, we express our deepest condolences.

Former president and opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian appeared to be under conditions of de facto house arrest, although that’s disputed by the government. I myself visited Mr. Ter-Petrossian at his residence.

When we drove the security — it was heavy security — there was no way to tell whether or not Mr. Ter-Petrossian was free to leave or not, but there was very heavy security. And I did talk to then Prime Minister Sargsyan about the appearance of such heavy security outside Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s residence, and I understand that that level of security was subsequently reduced.

And finally, there was a state of emergency imposed that was the most serious step — suspended freedom of assembly, suspended freedom of the media — and in that vacuum the government of Armenia filled that vacuum with all sorts of news reports that, well, attacked the opposition.

There afterward, there were large numbers of arrests, mass arrests of opposition activists and demonstration organizers. Well, there are 100 to 110 people or so still in prison. Many people went into hiding and fled. And many people were imprisoned on charges that seemed to have a political tint.

We don’t know exactly why all the people were arrested, but the point to keep in mind is under such circumstances, such political tension and allegations of irregularities in the election, the standard is very, very high, when people are arrested, to make clear that the arrests were committed for non-political reasons, for truly criminal reasons.

In response, our charge was very actively engaged with all of the political leaders. I myself made a couple of trips to Yerevan, spent several days initially in March, meeting with everyone I could find, with the then president, with the president-elect, with all of the opposition leaders.

The goal was to stimulate a dialogue that would restore of speech and freedom of assembly and secure the opposition’s pledge that their protests would remain lawful and peaceful. We remain clearly sharply critical of the steps the government of Armenia took in restricting freedoms, suspending freedoms. And we then, and we do now, call for the immediate release of all those people detained for any political charges.

Also, Ambassador Danilovich, the CEO of the MCC, issued a public letter to then President Kocharian, warning that absent the resumption of democratic momentum and democratic reforms, Armenia was putting it in a position that called into question the ability to sustain the Millennium Challenge program in Armenia.

That’s a decision, obviously, that the board of MCC will take, which is chaired by the secretary of state. I’m not here to issue empty threats or to sound threatening, but the reality is MCC is a performance-based program. The indicators that are not compiled by the U.S. government reflect performance.

And so the best point to make is that we hope to see Armenia and President Sargsyan take dramatic steps that restore the democratic momentum so that the Millennium Challenge program can continue.

We saw some progress in that the state of emergency was expired 20 days after it was imposed, in accordance with Armenia law. And we saw the re-establishment of most media freedoms in the lead-up to the inauguration of President Sargsyan.

At the same time, however, we still see that the law on demonstrations and parades and protests is restrictive. It has prompted an outcry from the Venice Commission and from the OSCE ODIHR.

We, unfortunately, have seen tax authorities of Armenia conducting investigations of four opposition newspapers that those newspapers find intimidating.

And we have seen some very surreal scenes on Yerevan streets in recent weeks, large numbers of people gathering, not doing anything, talking to each other in a silent protest, and then subsequently getting arrested by the police.

The good news is the military presence has reduced. The bad news, though, is that some arrests have continued of opposition activists.

So, finally, in this context how do we move forward? Number one, I think it should be clear how sharply the United States government has condemned the March violence, by whoever committed that violence. It’s difficult to tell, as I said before, who started it. And we would roundly criticize and condemn anybody who would use violence for political gain.

But at the same time, the burden of responsibility in such situations rests on the shoulders of elected governments.

Therefore, it’s important that there be an impartial investigation and prosecution of anyone who used violence on March 1st, on either side, whether they’re in the opposition or whether they’re in the government.

Now, we hope to see full restoration of all basic freedoms, both in law and in practice. We hope there will be further investigations and prosecutions of those people who violated election law.

And we very much hope to see a national dialogue between the government, opposition, civil society, that pursues some sort of an agreement or a contract for democracy, again, that allows and ensures full freedom of assembly in exchange for a pledge that all protests will be lawful and non-violent. We call on our friends in the government of Armenia to release all of those people, as I’ve said, who have been incarcerated for political reasons. And we urge the government to restore those democratic reforms that President Sargsyan has talked so eloquently about in the past and even during his inaugural address, despite those comments about the possible need for restrictions on some freedoms.

To wrap it all up, we observe that banning demonstrations will not quell the anger of the aggrieved people in Armenia. Silencing the votes of dissent will not achieve unity of opinion. And undermining the institutions of democracy will not achieve lasting stability.

And in the long run, stability comes from legitimacy, which can only derive from democracy and democratic freedom.

Of course, we’ve reiterated these fundamental truths to President Sargsyan. I’ve done it myself. Our charge in Yerevan has done it. Ambassador Danilovich has done it. Other senior officials have done it as well.

I did attend President Sargsyan’s inauguration in a spirit of our shared values and commitment to doing everything we can with all of Armenia to help it get through this difficult period and get back on the track of democratic reform.

We hope Armenia’s new president will hear and address the grievances of his citizens. He has said many of the right things in the past, and again at his inauguration, so we look forward to working with him and all the people of Armenia to make sure that the democratic foundation of the country is solid and therefore provide the only real foundation for long-term stability.

Thank you again. I apologize for going on so long. It’s a very complex question, and I look forward to your questions.

Answering¬†a question on Karabakh, Bryza told that Aliyev’s anti-Armenian hysteria is a reflection of the society:

Now, let’s get to the question that you first asked about the rhetoric. I myself have a couple of times, in my capacity as the coach here, raised this issue with President Aliyev. One time, in fact, even Congressman Knollenberg asked us to do it, and I happened to be meeting with President Aliyev that very day and was able to deliver Congressman Knollenberg’s points. In fact, twice I was able to do that.

Leverage bargaining is a part of the negotiation. Belligerent military threats are something nobody wants to hear. We complain about them. We urge President Aliyev to reduce tension to make it easier for there to be a solution.

His statements reflect politics in Azerbaijan. There are a large number of Azerbaijani citizens who favor potentially armed conflict to regain Nagorno-Karabakh. Whether we like that or not, people think that way. And many of the statements of President Aliyev reflect that sentiment.

We are committed to doing everything possible publicly to counter any belief that there’s a military solution and privately to make sure that we do all we can to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict.

Elaborating on the issue and responding to the Kosovo precedent, Bryza answered:

We didn’t know exactly how that reaction would manifest itself. But what we’re looking for in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh is not a legal agreement. It has to be a political agreement. There’s a legal principle of territorial integrity of states. There is a political principle of self-determination of peoples.

Both of these principles are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, along with non-use of force, and what we’ve been trying to do as mediators is to help the parties come up with a compromise between that legal right of territorial integrity and that political right or principle of self-determination of states.

So we thought about Kosovo in that light, but our ultimate decision makers nonetheless decided to proceed with Kosovo as we did, understanding that it will create difficult for us in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts in Georgia, for which I also carry some mediating authority.

Life has gotten more complicated as a result of the Kosovo outcome. I very much agree with you.

One more point I’d like to make about military force and maybe time or intentions. It’s impossible to know exactly what the intentions are of all these leaders — impossible. But what is clear is that time really is not on either country’s side.

If you are in Armenia, you might express the concerns that you raised about a large-scale military build-up in Azerbaijan and statements about the possible use of force. You wonder could that ever happen. So I would hope that the leaders of Armenia realize, “OK. We need to move forward expeditiously towards a settlement.”

The same goes for Azerbaijan, though. As we’ve seen all of this concern manifested about territorial integrity, following up Kosovo, in Azerbaijan people are very anxious, impatient. They want to make sure that they’re able to influence the negotiations in a way that does as much as it can to preserve Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

And unless the parties get together and reach that political compromise as quickly as possible, then the dangers of these large-scale exchanges of fire, and the danger of a larger exchange will simply smolder out there until potentially something terrible happens.

So we have to move forward.

I will write more about the government and opposition representatives’ response later.