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By Armen Zakarian
Next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia will be closely watched by the international community and will put to a serious test the country’s democratic credentials, according to Britain’s outgoing ambassador in Yerevan, Timothy Jones.

In farewell remarks to RFE/RL on Friday, Jones said that a proper conduct of the polls would improve Armenia’s image abroad and restore domestic public trust in its government. “The eyes of the world will be on Armenia for these elections,” Jones said. “It’s an opportunity for Armenia to demonstrate how mature its democracy has become.”

“It’s a big challenge for Armenia to conduct these elections openly and fairly,” he added.

Jones was among the Yerevan-based ambassadors of leading Western powers who recently urged the authorities to take urgent measures that would preclude serious irregularities at the upcoming presidential elections. In a joint open letter to the Central Election Commission, the top diplomats from the United States and several European nations recommended specific measures which they said could address inaccuracies in the voter lists, the lack of transparency in the vote counting process and the presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations.

Jones argued that a clean vote would also alleviate widespread public disillusionment with the Armenian government, which he said has been one of the causes of a large-scale emigration from the country over the past decade. “People emigrate also because they don’t feel connected to the management of the country,” he said in a thinly veiled reference to fraud reports that tainted the previous Armenian elections.

The British envoy will leave Armenia next week following a three-year tenure. Jones, who took over as ambassador in the tense aftermath of the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament, said he is glad that Armenia has avoided further political violence and upheavals since then. “What has happened in the three years I have been here is that the situation has become more stable,” he said.

Jones’s successor, Thorda Abbott-Watt, is also a career diplomat who has served in Latin America, Europe and, most recently, Tajikistan. Her appointment was announced by the British Foreign Office last April.

“To borrow from Gladstone, ‘to serve Armenia is to serve civilization’,” the London newspaper “Times” quoted Abbott-Watt as citing the 19th century British prime minister after her appointment. “The UK is committed to a strong, stable and independent Armenia and I intend to ensure that Britain continues to help with the important reform process under way,” she said.

Jones said one of the main tasks of the UK mission in Yerevan is to promote more British investments in the struggling Armenian economy. “There are now good prospects for British investment, especially in the growing sectors of the Armenian economy. Tourism, for example,” he said.

The diplomat noted that the presence in Armenia of giants like the HSBC bank and British Airways creates an “atmosphere of comfort” for prospective British investors, but made it clear that the Armenian authorities should do more to improve the business environment.
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