Despite widespread opposition and domestic observer claims of violence and intimidation, an international observation team has deemed Armenia's February 19 presidential vote a step forward in the country's start-and-stop process toward Western-style democracy.
The election "was administered mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards," Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly Vice-President Anne-Marie Lizin, head of the organization's short-term observer mission, told reporters in Yerevan on February 20. The mission -- comprising observers from 42 OSCE member states, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament -- monitored balloting at over half of Armenia's 1,923 polling stations.
Positive marks were given to the Central Election Commission's organization for the vote, and to efforts made to improve Armenia's routinely flawed voter registry. Freedom of assembly was generally respected, the observers found, and the prominent participation of domestic observation teams served as evidence of "an active and engaged non-governmental sector." Public information campaigns about the election and clarification of court procedures for complaints were also commended.
While hailing "genuine efforts" by the government to correct problems experienced during the 2007 parliamentary elections, the observers found that certain trouble areas remain. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Among them are issues also raised in earlier Armenian elections. According to Lizin, the main trouble spots included: "the absence of a clean separation between state and party functions; the lack of public confidence in the electoral process: and ensuring equal treatment of election [candidates]."
Monitors took issue with the National Commission on Television and Radio for not "adequately" taking steps to ensure that broadcast media met requirements for election coverage. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the apparent president-elect, received a preponderance of media attention, in particular favorable coverage from state television.
A one-day lag between the prime minister's rallies and news broadcasts about the events that featured "similar footage" created "the impression that specific editorial policies were applied and questions the editorial independence of media outlets," the preliminary report found.
At the same time, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian "received extensive negative coverage," while his criticism of the government was omittted by "almost all broadcast media." Footage shown of Ter-Petrosian rallies was "distorted" to suggest he routinely encountered "unreceptive and small campaign audiences," the statement said.
Sarkisian's retention of the premiership while running for president "awarded him campaign advantages," the observers found. Among them would appear to be the reported practice of government employees or individuals whose jobs rely on state funding routinely attending Sarkisian rallies. The observer mission stated that it had received three "first-hand accounts" from "public employees" who had been ordered to attend the rallies. "A concern exists that electoral choices of public-sector employees . . . can have consequences for individual livelihoods," the report states.
Nonetheless, in a slightly contradictory line of argument, the mission asserted that voters had "a genuine choice," and that the government "made efforts to provide a permissive campaign environment."
The final statement appeared to be at odds with concern voiced earlier by observers about the attention paid to election complaints. On February 17, the delegation noted in its report, the Central Election Commission in a single session threw out complaints filed mostly by Ter-Petrosian's proxies.
"There was little discussion or reference to the facts contained in the complaints and complainants were not present," the report said, adding that the CEC said that it had attempted to reach the petitioners. "This raises questions about the effectiveness of legal remedy sought by the complainant," the statement concluded.
A "bad" or "very bad" vote count at 16 percent of the monitored polling stations further undermined lackluster public confidence in the electoral process, the mission stated.
While such criticisms largely reflect ongoing concerns, the mission's description of the election-day atmosphere as "relatively calm" diverges significantly from assessments by local observation teams and opposition political parties.
Haroutiun Hambadzumian, chairman of the It's Your Choice non-governmental organization, which had 4,000 observers in the field on election day, asserts that "a large amount of violence and tension" rendered Armenia's presidential election distinct from its 2007 parliamentary vote.
One MP from the Heritage Party, which supported Ter-Petrosian's presidential bid, has gone a step further. "[B]arbarism reached its apogee" on election day, claimed Anahit Bakhshian. "The parliamentary elections were quite civilized compared to this one."
Many of the charges brought by the Ter-Petrosian campaign centered on the town of Abovyan, about 25 kilometers outside of Yerevan. The town is considered to be under the influence of pro-government tycoon Gagik Tsarukian, who was born in the region. Tsarukian's Prosperous Armenia Party is a member of Armenia's governing coalition.
The Ter-Petrosian campaign has claimed that one of its proxies in Abovyan was kidnapped after noticing that 350 names on a polling station voter registry had not been cross-checked with voters' passports. At a February 19 press conference, the proxy, showing bruises, claimed that she had been taken by car to "a deserted place" where "several people beat me and warned me against hindering the commission's work."
In a separate incident, two other Ter-Petrosian proxies -- the former head of Armenian customs, Yerzhanik Abgarian, and the former National Security Service deputy head Gurgen Yeghiazarian -- claimed that they were badly beaten at another Abovyan polling station. No police officer intervened to stop the brawl, they alleged. "Everyone is scared," Yeghiazarian told EurasiaNet.
International election observers did not address these reports, but noted "a few isolated violent incidents were reported." The preliminary statement cites "four activists" from Abovyan and the region of Davitashen, who claimed that they were attacked, while two proxies in Yerevan and the region of Kotayk made similar claims. Three precinct election commission members in Yerevan were reportedly thrown out of a polling station "by persons unknown," the statement added.
The Yerevan community of Malatia--Sebastia also featured prominently in opposition accusations of violence. The area is believed to be under the control of another tycoon, Samvel Alexanian, who owns numerous supermarkets and holds a monopoly over the import of sugar and other food products.
A 59-year-old proxy for candidate Arman Melikian, a former advisor to the de facto president of Nagorno-Karabakh, claims he was beaten senseless by "about 30 broad-shouldered young men" after he complained about alleged carousel voting. A local clinic reports the proxy suffered two broken ribs and injuries to his lungs and liver. The proxy has blamed Alexanian's bodyguards.
The information could not be independently verified.
Commenting on the opposition allegations of rampant violence, British MP John Prescott, head of the PACE delegation, noted that opposition parties had been unable to provide proof or witnesses of incidents brought to the international mission's attention. "We only have credibility when we draw conclusions on facts, not allegations," he said.
Armenian police told EurasiaNet on February 19 that they had received information about all of the cases, but were unable to locate Ter-Petrosian proxies Abgarian and Yeghiazarian to give evidence about their alleged beating in Abovyan. "Their location is unknown, so we don't have clear information yet," said spokesperson Sayat Shirinian. Both men, speaking to EurasiaNet, stated that they had been at Ter-Petrosian's Yerevan campaign headquarters following the alleged thrashing.
Meanwhile, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, headed by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, has taken a different approach. Party spokesperson Eduard Shamazanov claims that Ter-Petrosian supporters are beating their own candidate's proxies in order "to defame the electoral process by all possible means."
Shamazanov added that most of the reports were "provocations" that would be addressed by the police.
Reports of violence against reporters from opposition-friendly media outlets have also surfaced. The Election 2008 Legal Initiative, a voter-rights collective that provided emergency legal assistance to complainants on election day, reported repeated incidents of interference with media covering the poll.
Lusine Barseghian, a reporter for the daily newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak, told EurasiaNet that she had been thrown out of Yerevan polling station 13/16, hit in the stomach and had her camera seized when she arrived to investigate a tip about alleged ballot stuffing. The Haykakan Zhamanak daily's editor-in-chief is Nikol Parshinian, a senior Ter-Petrosian supporter and frequent rally orator.
At a February 20 press conference, Deputy General Prosecutor Aram Tamazian stated that seven criminal cases have so far been raised in connection with election violations. Three concern Barseghian's beating and violence against an observer and two Heritage Party parliamentarians. Investigations have also been launched into the incidents involving candidate Melikian's proxy, and the alleged beating of a Ter-Petrosian proxy in Kotayk region.
An investigation has also started into former deputy National Security Service chief Yeghiazarian for, allegedly, interfering with the election commission's work in Abovyan, the general prosecutor's office has said.
Prosecutors are meanwhile looking into an alleged knifing of a polling station election commission member by an Armenian Revolutionary Federation proxy, and a reported attack by a Ter-Petrosian regional campaign boss on a Sarkisian proxy.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan. Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus News Editor.