Armenia's leading political groups are gearing up for next spring's parliamentary elections, which could determine who succeeds President Robert Kocharian in 2008. A key issue surrounding the legislative vote is whether Armenia will be able to shed its post-Soviet reputation for electoral fraud.
Armenian government officials and their allies insist that they will do their best to make the vote free and fair. But their political opponents are skeptical, believing instead that incumbent authorities are intent on engineering a transfer of power from Kocharian to his most influential associate, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The United States and the European Union also have concerns about a possible repeat of the serious fraud that has marred just about every Armenian election held over the past decade. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Officials in Yerevan hope to dispel those concerns with a package of amendments to Armenia's electoral code that are meant to forestall various voting irregularities. Parliament approved the amendments in the first reading on October 24, and they are now undergoing a review by Council of Europe legal experts. One of them is designed to prevent ballot box stuffing by requiring voters put their marked ballots into special envelops before casting them. Other proposed changes would give more rights to election candidates' proxies and obligate election commissions to videotape the nationwide vote count and release preliminary turnout figures within five hours of the polls' closure.
"These amendments will make the electoral process in our country more democratic," one of their authors, Samvel Nikoyan of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), told fellow lawmakers.
The Armenian opposition is unconvinced, however, pointing to the authorities' rejection of other amendments put forward by opposition parliamentarians. One such proposal envisaged that Armenians going to the polls would have their fingers marked by indelible ink to make it easier for election officials to prevent multiple voting. Opposition leaders also claim that the changes in electoral legislation will prove meaningless because the authorities lack the "political will" to hold a democratic election and run the risk of losing power.
"These authorities have one aim: to retain power," Aram Sarkisian, a radical leader of the opposition Justice alliance, told EurasiaNet. "The only way to attain it is to rig elections. That is why we insist that in this country democratic elections can take place only after a democratic revolution resulting in regime change."
The HHK, of which Serzh Sarkisian is the unofficial leader, is the main source of election-related concerns voiced by the opposition and even some pro-Kocharian parties, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). They already accused it of resorting to fraud to win the last parliamentary elections held in 2003. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. HHK leaders do not deny that victory in the upcoming polls is vital for the success of Sarkisian's reputed plans to succeed Kocharian, whose second term ends in 2008. But they say that they will not seek to win at any cost.
Such assurances are clearly not taken at face value by other major political forces. The ARF, the HHK's junior partner in the governing coalition, warned earlier this year that it will join the opposition camp if the 2007 polls, too, fall short of democratic standards. Similar warnings have also been issued in recent months by Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has had to personally deal with the international fallout from Armenia's past flawed elections. "Everyone must realize that we simply have no more room for holding bad elections because this time the damage to our people would be not only moral, but also material," he said in an October 19 interview with the Yerevan daily Haykakan Zhamanak.
Oskanian alluded in particular to $235.6 million in additional economic assistance which the United States administration has earmarked for Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a scheme designed to promote political and economic reforms around the world. US officials indicate that Yerevan has pledged to improve its human rights and democracy records in return. "These are important commitments and the United States stands ready to help Armenia to ensure that its upcoming elections are free and fair," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during the signing of Armenia's MCA compact in Washington last March.
The European Union (EU), for its part, has made it clear that failure to meet that standard would call into question Armenia's forthcoming participation in the European Neighborhood Policy program that entitles it to a privileged relationship with the bloc. "If there are deficiencies [in the conduct of the 2007 elections], they will be noticed and there will be consequences," Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, warned after talks with Armenian leaders in Yerevan on October 2.
Both the US and EU have indicated their unease with the fact that the Armenian authorities have yet to formally ask the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the polls. The Western concerns seem to stem from the Kocharian administration's failure to extend such an invitation ahead of last November's disputed constitutional referendum. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
During an October 17-19 visit to Yerevan, US Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley elaborated on these concerns. "The OSCE is the gold standard for monitoring elections," she said in an interview done by this reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "They [the OSCE monitors] are coming to the United States to monitor our mid-term elections in November. Why the heck shouldn't they be over here to monitor the Armenian elections?"
Citing a busy schedule, Kocharian, however, pointedly declined to meet the visiting US diplomat. Finley, who met a host of other senior Armenian officials, said that she was "very, very disappointed" by the president's inability to meet with her. "Usually in my travels [to OSCE member states] I do meet with the head of state," she said.
The Armenian leader instead discussed the elections with the Yerevan-based ambassadors of major European Union countries on October 27. His office quoted him as assuring them that "both long-term and short-term international monitoring missions will be invited for the observation of electoral processes" in Armenia.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.