By Emil Danielyan
The legislative arm of the Council of Europe warned the Armenian authorities on Wednesday that a repeat of alleged widespread fraud in next week’s presidential run-off could jeopardize Armenia’s hard-won membership of the Strasbourg-based unofficial club of European democracies. It also called for the “immediate release” of scores of opposition activists arrested in the wake of last week’s first-round vote.
“We are seriously concerned about the shortcomings and irregularities reported by the international election observation mission after the first round,” Peter Schieder, the Austrian president of the of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), said in a strongly-worded statement from Strasbourg. “If Armenia wants to live up to its democratic obligations as a member country of the Council of Europe, such irregularities should not be reproduced during the second round.”
Schieder also indicated that the authorities should handle the March 5 second round, which will pit incumbent President Robert Kocharian against opposition leader Stepan Demirchian, in a way that will be acceptable to their political opponents. “We expect a free and fair outcome of the presidential election, one which allows for the results to be accepted by all those concerned, thus helping to consolidate democratic stability in the country,” he stressed.
The PACE and the Organization for Security and Cooperation have jointly deployed the largest international mission to monitor the Armenian election. In its preliminary report, the mission concluded that although the February 19 vote was “generally calm and well-administered,” it “fell short of international standards in several key respects.” Lord Russell Johnston, who headed a team of PACE observers, said it found “serious irregularities” during the process.
With over 600 lawmakers representing 43 countries, the PACE is seen as the world’s most representative assembly. Its decisions, though not binding for member states, carry considerable weight with the Council’s main decision-making body: the Committee of Ministers.
In a statement late last month, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer said that Armenia, as well as neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, must hold free and fair polls this year if they are to become further integrated into the European community.
The PACE’s Schieder also expressed concern at the continuing government crackdown on opposition activists attending anti-government rallies called by Demirchian. "It is the duty of the authorities to do their best to overcome tensions without resorting to disproportionate means to maintain public order," he said.
Schieder further urged the Armenian opposition to “fully respect the constitutional and legal order of the country,” apparently referring some opposition leaders’ threats to oust Kocharian by force if he “illegally” clings to power.