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By Emil Danielyan
The Council of Europe has issued Armenian authorities with a fresh warning to prevent a repeat of irregularities that marred the first round of the presidential ballot on February 19. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said Wednesday that official Yerevan is taking the criticism seriously and will address European concerns during the run-off.

"A repetition of the incidents that took place during and after the first round would mean a lost election for everybody, regardless of the outcome", the secretary general of the Strasbourg-based club of European democracies, Walter Schwimmer, said in a statement late Tuesday.

Schwimmer urged both the authorities and the opposition to “bear in mind that what the country needs now are free elections, accepted by all sides as fair and legitimate.”

The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have jointly deployed the largest international mission to monitor the election. The mission concluded on February 20 that the first-round vote fell short of international standards.

The head of PACE observers, Lord Russell Johnston, on Wednesday endorsed Schwimmer’s remarks, saying that the reported irregularities were a “great pity.” “I hope that the second round will not be the same,” he told RFE/RL at a polling station in central Yerevan. He at the same time noted that “in a large part of the country the conduct of the election was quite proper.”

Schwimmer’s statement said bluntly that the February 19 vote was a “missed opportunity for Armenia to abandon past electoral practices and win the confidence not only of the voters but also of the European public opinion.”

“Perhaps this is a bit exaggerated,” Oskanian said, reacting to the statement. “But of course, every election is a big opportunity for us to show the world that democracy has taken root here. In that sense, it’s true that the first round didn’t allow us to do that.”

Oskanian urged the Armenian opposition not to “exploit” the electoral process for its “narrow political interests” because at stake is the country’s international reputation. “I think that everything will be all right in the second round,” he told reporters.

The Council of Europe chief also called on the authorities in Yerevan to release all opposition activists arrested over the past ten days, “to refrain from interfering with the media and to show utmost respect for their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.” “A proper count and early and complete transparency concerning voting results would go a long way towards re-establishing faith in Armenia's willingness to respect democratic rules,” he said.

Schwimmer further urged the Armenian military to “avoid expressing any political position.”

In a statement issued in the wake of the first round, the Armenian Defense Ministry warned Demirchian and other opposition leaders that it “will not take an indifferent stance” if they jeopardize “state order.” The current defense minister, Serzh Sarkisian, is also Kocharian’s campaign manager.
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