Armenia's leadership wants to stave off punitive action by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) over the conduct of presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this year. President Robert Kocharian's administration appears poised to take quick action to formally abolish the death penalty in Armenia in the hope that it will mollify PACE.
International observers criticized both the presidential and parliamentary votes, saying both were marred by widespread electoral abuses. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Dissatisfaction over the government's handling of the polls prompted PACE to warn that it might not recognize the credentials of the assembly's four new Armenian members. Such a measure, though largely symbolic, would deal a serious blow to Armenia's international image.
Not surprisingly, Kocharian's administration is scrambling to address PACE concerns. It has promised to reform the country's electoral code and bring other legislation up to European standards. In particular, officials have focused on closing legal loopholes that allow for capital punishment in Armenia. Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights unconditionally bans the death penalty in peacetime. Contrary to Yerevan's Council of Europe membership obligations, however, Armenian authorities have so far declined to join the convention due to strong domestic opposition.
The new Armenian Criminal Code replaces the death penalty in most instances with life imprisonment. But last April, parliament added a special clause to the code that allows for death sentences in exceptional cases, such as those related to terrorism and the sexual abuse of minors. The clause, rejected as unacceptable by the Council of Europe, is primarily intended for application to the six suspects on trial for the notorious parliament assassinations in October 1999. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Armenia's current National Assembly, dominated by Kocharian supporters, is now expected to scrap the loophole and ratify Protocol No. 6 ahead of the PACE's autumn session, which is scheduled to begin in late September. "If we discuss and ratify the protocol in September, then I think there will be no serious developments in Strasbourg regarding the recognition of our delegation's credentials," parliament's influential deputy speaker, Tigran Torosian, told EurasiaNet on August 26.
Torosian's optimism is apparently based on conversations that he and other Armenian leaders have had with visiting PACE officials who are responsible for monitoring the country's fulfillment of Council of Europe obligations. The officials spoke out against any sanctions against Yerevan and gave an overall positive assessment of Yerevan's commitment to political reform.
That assessment caused dismay among opposition politicians, many of whom refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Kocharian administration. The meeting between the PACE representatives and the most popular opposition leader, Stepan Demirchian, was tense, according to participants. Demirchian, who was Kocharian's main challenger in the presidential race, raged at the PACE rapporteurs for their perceived disproportionate emphasis on the death penalty issue.
"A regime that falsifies elections, tramples human rights, shuts down independent media and illegally arrests citizens must not be seen as espousing European values just because it has abolished the death penalty," Demirchian argued on August 26. "Those speaking of European values in Armenia most forcefully are the ones who committed crimes during the elections," he added in an apparent jab at Kocharian whose controversial reelection the opposition does not recognize.
Demirchian and other leaders of his Justice alliance, including former prime minister Aram Sarkisian, want capital punishment to remain on the books, and be applied to the perpetrators of the parliament massacre. Demirchian's father, Karen, and Sarkisian's brother, Vazgen, were among eight senior officials killed by the gunmen.
Armenia has observed an unofficial moratorium on executions since the fall of its last Communist government in 1990. It lacks both the necessary personnel and facilities for carrying out death sentences. A recent presidential decree commuting the 42 death verdicts handed down by courts since 1990 to life terms, along with the impending ratification of the Protocol No. 6, are thus viewed as largely symbolic moves.
Opposition leaders say things like free elections and freedom of expression are far more important to Armenia's democratization. It is not yet clear, however, what specific action they expect from the Council of Europe. "It is up to them to decide what to do," Demirchian said, ducking the question on whether he would welcome punitive action.
Meanwhile, parliament's pro-Kocharian majority is trying to showcase its stated commitment to political reform by planning to set up an ad hoc committee to promote Armenia's "integration into the European structures." According to Torosian, the body will oversee the drawing up of laws and legal amendments required by the Council of Europe, and will try to lay the groundwork for a possible Armenian bid to join the European Union. "For us, EU membership is a distant but obvious aim," he said.
Opposition leaders scoff at the ambitious idea. As one of them, veteran lawmaker Victor Dallakian, put it: "They had better think about their illegitimate president and parliament."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.