Armenian Government Threatens NGO and Former Foreign Minister

10/01/2012 03:21 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2012

An attack on a former foreign minister of Armenia is threatening to shut down one of the country's most active and innovative non-profit organizations.

Vartan Oskanian, a U.S.-educated Armenian who served as foreign minister from 1998 to 2008, is being accused by the Armenian government of money laundering for a donation he accepted from the father (an American businessman and philanthropist) of former U.S. presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr..

After leaving his post as foreign minister, Oskanian established The Civilitas Foundation in 2008 in order to strengthen Armenia's civil society. Since its creation, the foundation has received funding from several Western governments, as well as the OSCE, a number of international non-governmental organizations, and individual donors from around the world. Jon Huntsman Sr. was one of these donors.

Huntsman Sr. contributed nearly $2 million to Civilitas in January 2011, and at the time, the Armenian tax authorities said nothing. In May 2012, Oskanian was elected to parliament as a member of the Prosperous Party on a platform of doing away with political and economic monopolies. Two weeks later, the Prosperous Party announced it would not join a coalition, a decision which Oskanian had championed. The very next day, the National Security Service opened a criminal file on money laundering and said that Oskanian and the Civilitas Foundation were involved.

"It's hard to believe the timing was a coincidence," said Ophelia Harutyunyan, who worked as a producer at CivilNet and is now enrolled in the graduate film program at Columbia University.

On Tuesday, the Armenian Parliament will vote to seek removal of Oskanian's parliamentary immunity, in order to charge him with expropriating funds and money laundering. If convicted, Oskanian could face four to 12 years in prison. With or without Oskanian's immunity being removed and whether or not he is put on trial, the Armenian government can also, at any time, freeze the Civilitas bank account and office resources, essentially shutting down the foundation, putting over 60 people out of work, and putting an end to the many successful development projects they have started in the country.

Most of Civilitas' employees are young adults who have been educated abroad, who work tirelessly to strengthen civil society by hosting debates, building libraries, and establishing microfinance development projects, to name just a few initiatives.

"Civilitas has created a space for people like me to work and foster positive change in Armenia," said Diana Muradova, an editor at Civilitas. "Our country is facing hard socio-economic conditions and we have a severe lack of adequate-paying jobs, but Civilitas has given more than 60 educated people an incentive to stay here for development of civil society and free media."

With few professional opportunities, many educated Armenians choose to leave the country in search of work. In 2011, 43,800 people left the country, 1.3 percent of the population. Since 2000, 236,200 people have migrated from Armenia, which is 7.2 percent of the population.

"What Civilitas represented for me was getting young, multilingual Armenians to believe that change was possible -- that you didn't have to leave Armenia for change to happen," said Greg Bilazarian, who worked as a producer at Civilitas and now attends Yale Business School. "This is going to severely hurt 60 people who have chosen to put their faith and energy into something that could change their country. The next step after that would be to leave the country. That's what we we're trying to prevent."

In 2011, the foundation began to publish a daily newspaper and launched CivilNet, a multilingual online news channel with funding from the Huntsman donation. In a country where most media outlets are controlled by the government, CivilNet is one of the only reliable sources of information.

"We delivered a kind of journalism that most people hadn't seen before in Armenia. We never covered stuff simply for ratings. We let people work on stories that really mattered. It would be devastating if anything were to happen to Civilitas, especially if it happened in the name of politics to people who are not working for Vartan Oskanian to get elected, they're working to better their civil society, for women's rights, for the environment," said Bilazarian.

CivilNet was very active during the Armenian parliamentary elections last May, producing videos of blatant election fraud, which the prosecutor's office failed to investigate. If Civilitas is shut down, the upcoming presidential elections will be covered mainly by media organizations controlled by the government.

Full disclosure: I volunteered as a journalist at Civilitas for five months in 2010. I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with such a talented, hardworking group of people in a country where inefficiency is the norm. As an Armenian American, not only am I am involved in the process of civil society building in Armenia, but I am also a member of the Armenian diaspora, which raises a lot of money for Armenian charities. If Civilitas is shut down, it would be a giant step backward not only in the fight for a less corrupt and more democratic Armenia, but also for all the members of the diaspora who work to make their motherland a better place, and for all those who believe in freedom of the press.