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By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has reaffirmed its leadership’s strong criticism of the recent presidential election in Armenia which was marred by allegations of widespread fraud.

In a resolution adopted late on Monday, the PACE stopped short of threatening political sanctions against the member country, urging only official Yerevan to prevent a repeat of serious vote irregularities during the parliamentary elections next May.

“It is hoped that during the time remaining before the parliamentary elections in Armenia, scheduled for the 25 May, authorities will pay heed to criticisms and recommendations articulated by international observers and will take the corrective action so badly needed for Armenia to retain its democratic credentials,” it says.

The document is based on a report submitted by Lord Russell-Johnston, a British parliamentarian who headed a team of PACE observers that monitored both rounds of voting. In a joint statement issued with a much bigger monitoring mission deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation, they concluded that the elections fell short of democratic standards.

“Of most concern were widespread cases of ballot box stuffing. There were numerous confirmed instances of stamped and signed ballots circulating outside polling stations before and during the voting day,” Russell-Johnston’s report reads. “The counting process was negatively assessed by observers at a high proportion of polling stations.”

The resolution was approved by the 43-nation assembly based in Strasbourg following a debate which saw renewed criticism of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the vote. In his speech Russell-Johnston said it failed to mark any improvement over the previous 1998 presidential ballot also strongly criticized by the international community.

“Five years ago, the election attracted criticism. Five years on, one was entitled to expect considerable improvement. Sadly, this was not so,” he complained.

Another PACE observer, Jerzi Jaskiernia of Poland, used even stronger terms. “We cannot expect free and fair elections in Armenia, especially when the head of the electoral campaign of one of the presidential candidates is the minister of defense,” he said, referring to President Robert Kocharian’s influential campaign manager, Serzh Sarkisian.

The Armenian members of the PACE, who support Kocharian, admitted that the election was flawed but said the reported irregularities do not put its outcome in doubt. “The opposition had said prior to the elections that they would be rigged,” complained Hovannes Hovannisian. “This contributed to the tensions.”

“The violations and flaws noted by our own observers and authorities as well as by international observers concern us deeply, and our government is already working on ways to remedy those faults,” said another lawmaker, Ashot Galoyan.

In a decision welcomed by the Armenian parliamentarians, the PACE decided to send a much larger delegation of observers to Armenia for the May elections. An advance team of Council of Europe officials will arrive in Yerevan by the end of this month.

Russell-Johnston also denounced the post-election arrests of scores of Armenian opposition activists many of whom have been sentenced to up to 15 days in prison under Armenia’s Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offences, strongly criticized by the PACE and international human rights groups. He urged the organization’s main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, to press Yerevan to stop enforcing the code.

Monday’s debate in Strasbourg was another opportunity for the PACE’s Azerbaijani members to make their case against the Armenian position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Spearheading the attack was Ilham Aliev, the son and likely successor of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev.

“Serious violations of the basic electoral standards, which all of us can see, are the logical outcome of the policy of total ignorance of the basic rules on international law,” Aliev said. “That logical outcome of violation of international law was demonstrated by Armenia in continuing to occupy for ten years 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan.”

The Azerbaijani speeches prompted a sharp response from Russell-Johnston who stressed that Baku’s democratic record is not any better than Yerevan’s. “I remind our Azeri colleagues that they have elections coming up shortly and that the last elections that they held were criticized quite severely,” he said.
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