Huffington Post Canada
Oct 1 2012

Olivia Katrandjian, Journalist and Travel Writer

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

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 chose 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.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress