With only four months to go before Armenia's next presidential election, Yerevan has endorsed controversial Russian proposals that would seriously restrict the work of Western election observers acting under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Leading Armenian opposition parties portray the move as a sign that the administration of outgoing President Robert Kocharian is not intent on ensuring the freedom and fairness of the vote, scheduled for early 2008. Significantly, representatives of Kocharian's three-party governing coalition have also spoken out against the proposed curbs, raising more questions about the Armenian leadership's motives.
The Russian proposals were submitted to the OSCE secretariat in Vienna on September 18 and are expected to be discussed by the foreign ministers of the organization's 56 member states at a meeting in Madrid on November 29-30. In particular, they would slash to 50 the maximum number of observers which the OSCE's election-monitoring arm, the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), can deploy in any member nation. Under the proposals, ODIHR observers would be allowed to assess the conduct of elections only after the publication of their official results. What is more, the OSCE's governing Permanent Council, made up of representatives of all member governments, would be involved in the drawing up of those assessments.
The initiative is widely linked with Russia's own December 2 parliamentary elections, a vote which President Vladimir Putin and his allies hope to win by a landslide. The Kremlin makes no secret of its displeasure with ODIHR monitors' criticism of the previous Russian parliamentary elections held in 2003. Moscow's OSCE envoy, Alexei Borodavkin, accused the monitors last week of bias against Russia and other, Moscow-friendly former Soviet republics, the Interfax news agency reported.
Five of these countries -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- endorsed the Russian proposals. Elections held in these ex-Soviet states have likewise been judged deeply flawed by Western observers representing the OSCE and other international organizations.
Explaining Yerevan's position last week, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Vladimir Karapetian, stopped short of openly accusing the OSCE of bias. But he said that the organization needs to undergo "reforms" that would make it "more representative, transparent and equal for everyone." However, Armenian opposition leaders dismissed the explanation and claimed that the authorities are disinterested in the proper conduct of the approaching presidential election.
"Their behavior proves the fact that they are not prepared for free and fair elections because they believe they would definitely lose such elections," said Aram Sarkisian, leader of the radical Republic Party and a key ally of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who recently announced his own presidential bid. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "They will, therefore, try to hold unfair elections at any cost," Sarkisian told EurasiaNet.
A spokesman for the opposition Heritage Party, one of the two opposition groups represented in Armenia's parliament, also warned of a government "cover-up" of possible vote rigging. "What do the authorities want to hide from the OSCE?" asked Hovsep Khurshudian. "If, as they say, everything is going to be all right [in the elections,] why do they support these restrictions?"
"It is also dishonorable for Armenia to act in covenant with dictatorial countries like Belarus and Uzbekistan," Khurshudian added.
Yerevan's support for the Russian proposals is all the more surprising given the fact that Armenia's most recent parliamentary elections, held last May and swept by pro-government parties, were found to be largely democratic by more than 200 observers deployed by the OSCE/ODIHR. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Armenia did not have any problems with the number of our observers and their findings," ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on October 26. "So we don't see any good reason why Armenia would support such a proposal now."
The United States has also rejected the Russian proposals.
Senior lawmakers from the three parties represented in the Armenian government voiced their opposition to any curbs on Western-led vote monitoring in separate news briefings on October 26. "I think the larger the monitoring missions coming here are, the more objective their conclusions will be," said Eduard Sharmazanov of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), led by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
"I personally am against that," said Avet Adonts of the pro-Kocharian Prosperous Armenia Party, the second largest parliamentary force. "The more international organizations monitor our electoral processes, the better."
Hrayr Karapetian, the parliamentary leader of the RPA's second coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, went further, suggesting that foreign observers be deployed in each of Armenia's roughly 2,000 electoral precincts. With Kocharian and Sarkisian widely believed to be single-handedly making key government decisions, such statements are not expected to influence the country's two top leaders, though.
Observers note that it is not the first time that Armenia joins Russia, its main international ally, in demanding a "reform" of OSCE bodies promoting democratization. Yerevan has also sided with Moscow in other international organizations like the United Nations and the Council of Europe. All of which raises the question of whether the Kocharian administration backed the latest Russian proposals with an eye towards the approaching presidential ballot or out of solidarity with the Kremlin. Opposition leaders believe that both considerations were at play.
"The Armenian authorities were simply afraid having problems with Russia," claimed the Republic Party's Sarkisian. "The Russians must have exerted pressure on them, and that is another reason why the Armenian authorities backed those proposals."
Khurshudian, for his part, complained that Armenian foreign policy is now "tied to the interests of a foreign power." "We are very concerned that Armenia's sovereignty has diminished so dramatically," he said.
Emil Danielyan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.