Of Summer Doldrums, Scoops and Spoofs


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

One hot day in late July I received emails from two friends — one is Armenian and the other Italian — both alerting me to a curious letter circulating widely on the Internet. It had to do with the protests against electricity price hikes in Armenia, and coverage hinted that these might signal the start of a “colored revolution” in the country, aimed at toppling the government. Dated July 9, and written on the official letterhead of the USAID (United States Agency for International Development), the letter was addressed to Mr. Arthur Sakunts, President of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office. In it, Karen R. Hilliard, the Mission Director of USAID/Armenia, whose name appeared at the end (without a signature, which had been ostensibly whited out), rakes Mr. Sakunts over the coals, for not keeping up the momentum of the protests: “the number of protesters is decreasing, strident rhetoric is evolving into a peaceful dialogue with the government, and political demands are being abandoned.” She states that he has “failed to take advantage of the resources provided” to him and has “performed poorly.” Instead of firing him, she however insists that “activity in any of the previously agreed upon sectors” must continue, particularly in light of “events planned for Azerbaijan.” So she orders him to “fuel all forms of the people’s protests” and hints that, if he doesn’t, he may well get his walking papers.

A quick survey of the item on the Internet confirmed that the letter was being touted as proof of yet another US State Department operation in a former Soviet republic, and comparisons with the Maidan protests were everywhere. You don’t have to be an investigative journalist to get suspicious. I looked up the Italian journalist whose article had been sent to me. It opened with the statement, “This letter is priceless,” and by the time I reached him by email, he had removed it from his website. Yes, he agreed when I voiced my doubts, it might not be authentic. Both he and my Armenian friend were eager to hear what would emerge from my little investigation.

Mr. Sakunts, whom I reached by phone in his office in Vanadzor, told me, through an interpreter, that he had never received any such letter. He noted first, that it was published on a little known Russian website, then picked up by a pro-government Azerbaijan website which cited its source. Sakunts pointed out the reference to “events planned for Azerbaijan,” and suggested the letter may have been fabricated by the Russian federal bureau of investigation with the aim of showing that the enemy is the USA. His name, he said, was not so important; they wanted to identify human rights activists and American interests. He made no attempts to conceal his own public criticisms of Russian policies in Ukraine and elsewhere, and mentioned that in 2010 Russian media had linked his group with plans for a “colored revolution.” Nor did he conceal the fact that his Helsinki group is officially funded by several US outfits, as reported on his website, including USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, and others.

This particular letter, he said, raised a storm in Azerbaijan, where the US Embassy evidently had to release a statement of denial. In Armenia, he said, most people took it for a fake. He added that the Armenian government had just received $750,000 from USAID for the campaign against corruption, and therefore probably didn’t lend much credence to the letter.

Getting a response from USAID was a bit more difficult. It took me several days after I called Ms. Hilliard’s office in New York and followed up with a detailed email, before I received an answer. And it was terse. “As Mr. Sakunts informed you,” the email said, “the letter is a forgery. While we can’t speculate as to the source of the information, USAID remains committed to supporting a constructive dialogue between the Government of Armenia and civil society to advance the US-Armenian partnership and help promote an independent, prosperous Armenia.” It concluded saying I should attribute the statement to an official of USAID.

Both the Italian journalist and my Armenian friend were grateful for the updates. Meanwhile the letter had gone up in a puff of smoke and Internet press coverage had shifted to the documented history of US State Department interference in various former Soviet republics, the Arab world, etc. The upshot is that, though this particular letter, drafted in rather blunt language, might well be a fraud, it was able to bounce around the electronic universe and feed conspiracy bugs with fodder, precisely because US-backed manipulations of civil society activities have a long history. (And, as for the explicit language, has everyone forgotten Victoria Nuland’s “F— the EU!” in her phone conversation with the US Ambassador in Ukraine? And she is the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, after all.)