By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
The new Russian head of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe claimed Thursday substantial progress in Armenia’s democratization, contradicting the OSCE’s harsh criticism of this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
He also made an unusually positive assessment of the situation with press freedom in the country that sharply contrasted with the opinion of OSCE’s Vienna-based media watchdog.
“Armenia has taken a big step on the path of democratization,” Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin declared at a news conference.
Pryakhin said his conclusion takes into account the 2003 Armenian elections that were marred by reports of widespread irregularities. He implied that they compared favorably with the recent parliamentary vote in neighboring Georgia that were annulled following similar fraud allegations. Armenia avoided sliding into both “anarchy” and “stiff authoritarianism” as a result of the polls, he added in an apparent reference to the post-election situations in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The OSCE fielded about 200 mainly Western observers across Armenia to monitor the course of the presidential and parliamentary elections held in February-March and May respectively. They reported numerous instances of serious fraud and concluded that both ballots fell short of democratic standards.
In a separate statement issued following the March 5 presidential run-off, the U.S. State Department said the administration of President Robert Kocharian “missed an important opportunity to advance democratization by holding a credible election.”
Visiting Yerevan in July, the vice president of the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly, Giovanni Kessler, and the director of the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Christian Strohal, stood by the election criticism. They also said they received assurances that the Armenian authorities will embark on a sweeping reform of the country’s flawed electoral system.
There have been no steps in that direction yet, however. Some Kocharian associates had earlier brushed aside the international criticism. The most powerful of them, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, claimed in particular that the Western observers are less familiar with “Armenian mentality” than their counterparts from Russia and other ex-Soviet states that praised their handling of the elections.
Pryakhin, 59, has previously held various positions in the Soviet and Russian diplomatic services. Earlier this year he became the first Russian diplomat to be appointed by the OSCE Permanent Council as head of an OSCE field office in a member country. The decision was taken by consensus, meaning that the U.S. and other major Western governments did not oppose his candidacy.
Although the Russian official is technically accountable only to the Permanent Council, his position on the Armenian elections mirrors the stance of official Moscow which rushed to congratulate Kocharian on his disputed reelection before the publication of the final vote results.
The move, portrayed by the authorities as proof of Kocharian’s international legitimacy, was deplored by the Armenian opposition which insists that both elections were rigged in favor of the ruling establishment. One of the opposition leaders, Shavarsh Kocharian, charged this week that Russia is trying to thwart political reform in the three South Caucasus states in a bid to keep their rulers dependent on Russian support.
Pryakhin further contradicted the OSCE when he stated that “press freedom is being respected” in Armenia, answering a question about the fairness of an upcoming tender for a broadcasting license.
The Vienna-headquartered organization comprising 55 members states from Europe, Central Asia and North America criticized the Armenian authorities for refusing to lift their ban on the independent A1+ television following a similar tender held last July. The OSCE’s special representative on press freedom, Freimut Duve, said its outcome showed that “freedom of expression in Armenia continues to be restricted.”
Pryakhin indicated that his office will not complain to the authorities if A1+ loses the December 24 bidding. “A tender means that someone will lose,” he explained, adding that unsuccessful TV companies can always cite political motives to justify their defeat.
Pryakhin’s predecessor, Ambassador Roy Reeve of Britain, was far more critical of a Kocharian-appointed commission’s decision in April 2002 to pull the plug on A1+ and its subsequent refusals to reopen the channel that was critical of the Armenian president. Reeve also exasperated some senior Armenian officials last June when he initiated a joint letter by Yerevan-based Western diplomats that called for the decriminalization of libel offences in Armenia.