U.S. Ambassador John Heffern on Thursday expressed concern at criminal proceedings launched against Vartan Oskanian and the Civilitas Foundation before visiting the think-tank, founded by the former Armenian foreign minister, together with Yerevan-based European diplomats.
“The timing of it is troubling. The fact that this would happen at this time in the political calendar is troubling,” Heffern told RFE/RL’s Armenian service, referring to the money laundering case brought by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS).
“The Civilitas is a very important partner for us, and we think it’s really important for Armenia politically and for the media,” he said. “So we are very interested in the case and we are following it very carefully.”
The case stems from a nearly $2 million donation which Civilitas received from two U.S. companies last year. The sum was transferred from proceeds from the sale of their Armenian subsidiary, Huntsman Building Products. The NSS claims that Civilitas failed to declare the donation to tax authorities. Oskanian strongly denies that and says the case is politically motivated.
The former minister, who was a U.S. citizen until 1998, resigned as chairman of Civilitas’s governing board earlier this year shortly after joining the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) to contest the May 6 parliamentary elections. He repeatedly criticized the government during the parliamentary race and backed the BHK’s post-election decision to quit the country’s ruling coalition.
“I don’t know the facts about who did what to whom and who is accused of doing what, which money went where,” Heffern said. “So I can’t comment on the substance of it.”
The U.S. envoy added that he hopes to hear more details of the case when he visits Civilitas and meets with its management later in the day.
The Yerevan-based ambassadors of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Romania were also present at the meeting, suggesting that their governments too are concerned over the NSS investigation. Some of those governments as well as the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan have sponsored Civilitas projects.
“I conveyed to them the information that we have about the matter and our views,” Salpi Ghazarian, the Civilitas director, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) after the meeting. “We are very grateful for their attention and their understanding.”
“We explained that there were no illegal actions, that the foundation’s activities have been and remain transparent,” Ghazarian said. “We also gave explanations about the [Huntsman] donation and Civilitas’s activities and conveyed to them our concerns.” She said the authorities launched the probe to pressure not only Oskanian but also the CivilNet online TV service that was launched by Civilitas last year.
Ghazarian added that she has been summoned the NSS for questioning on Friday.
Oskanian has already been twice interrogated by NSS investigators. The latter have not formally charged him or anyone else yet.