By Emil Danielyan
U.S. Ambassador John Ordway warned on Friday that the United States will challenge the official outcome of the upcoming presidential elections in Armenia if they are tainted with serious fraud.
“We are looking closely at the process,” Ordway said in a statement. “Any significant irregularities in the process will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the whole process and, therefore, on the result.”
The warning appears to have been primarily addressed to President Robert Kocharian who is seeking a second five-year term in office. Kocharian’s 1998 election as president was criticized by Western election monitors as falling shorting of international standards.
The observers acting under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe now say they hope the February 19 polls will be more democratic.
In a separate statement made available to RFE/RL, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan did not refute or confirm local press reports quoting Ordway as saying that Washington will not recognize official election results even if irregularities affect only five percent of the vote. Ordway was said to have made the comments at a meeting on Wednesday with an opposition presidential candidate, Aram Sarkisian of the Democratic Party of Armenia.
“There was a personal conversation, not an on-the-record press event,” the embassy said. “We have no recording of it and the Ambassador does not have a specific recollection of the exact wording that he used on any topic during the course of the Russian-language conversation.”
Freedom and fairness of the Armenian elections was a major theme of Ordway’s recent meetings in the U.S. with members of the local Armenian community. The envoy told them that a clean vote is vital for Armenia.
Some Armenian observers have suggested that the U.S. and other Western powers would like to see Kocharian smoothly reelected, in the hope that he will continue international efforts to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, a Western diplomatic source in Yerevan brushed aside this argument as a “conspiracy theory” on Thursday, saying that the Western governments do not feel that a regime change in Armenia or Azerbaijan would necessarily undermine the peace process.
Ordway likewise told a group of Armenian-Americans in Washington on January 13 that a proper handling of the elections is more important than their outcome. "We will do our part to train election officials and observers to ensure a good process," the Armenian Assembly of America quoted him as saying.
Kocharian has held more than 20 face-to-face meetings on Karabakh with Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev during his presidency. With presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan this year, few observers expect a breakthrough on the issue before 2004. But many believe that electoral victories not marred by allegations of fraud would give the two leaders a popular mandate to press ahead with mutual concessions needed to end the protracted territorial dispute.