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By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) deplored late Tuesday what it sees as a lack of progress in Armenia’s democratization, while praising its leaders’ recent “considerable efforts” to honor their commitments to the authoritative human rights organization.

A resolution approved by the PACE singles out “massive fraud” in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections as well as the Armenian authorities’ failure to ensure media pluralism, the independence of the judiciary and legalize a non-traditional religious group.

But in a major consolation for Yerevan, Strasbourg lawmakers dropped resolution language explicitly referring to Nagorno-Karabakh as an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan. They also refused to endorse the Armenian opposition’s calls for a referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian.

“2003 has been a busy electoral year for Armenia and as a result no further progress has been made in the current reforms,” the resolution reads. “Nevertheless, since September 2003, Armenia's undeniable efforts show that it is once more committed to making progress towards honoring its obligations and commitments.”

Its most critical assessments have to do with the disputed 2003 elections that are still reverberating in Armenia’s political stage. “The Assembly cannot but express its profound disappointment at the conduct of the elections…which gave rise to serious irregularities and massive fraud,” the document says, adding that Armenia should remain under a regime of permanent Council of Europe monitoring until it holds polls “in compliance with international democratic standards.”

The PACE specifically expressed “shock” at the infamous arrests of hundreds of opposition supporters during the tense presidential race and reiterated their demands for the scrapping of Soviet-era legal provisions that made possible their brief imprisonment.

The Armenian authorities earlier resisted such calls but now seem ready to amend the controversial Code of Administrative Misdemeanors. They now have until next April to suggest corresponding amendments to Strasbourg.

Two of the PACE’s members representing the Armenian opposition tried unsuccessfully to get the assembly to back the idea of national vote of confidence in Kocharian floated by Armenia’s Constitutional Court last month. One of them, Artashes Geghamian, told RFE/RL that the failure of the effort caused him “great bitterness” and accused the organization of applying “double standards.” But Geghamian’s opposition colleague, Shavarsh Kocharian, disagreed, saying that the criticism contained in the resolution is already serious enough for the Armenian authorities.

The resolution, largely drafted by two lawmakers monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its 2001 membership obligations, reiterates the Council of Europe criticism of the April 2002 closure of the country’s leading independent TV station, A1+. However, it does not explicitly demand the channel’s reopening and only calls for unspecified changes in the Armenian law on broadcasting.

The resolution also denounces the continuing widespread mistreatment of Armenian criminal suspects and accuses Kocharian’s administration of failing to tackle endemic corruption which “has reached intolerable proportions.” It at the same time welcomes an anti-corruption strategy unveiled by Yerevan recently.

The head of the Armenian delegation at the PACE, Tigran Torosian, sought to put a brave face on the judgment, pointing to a last-minute removal from its text of a phrase referring to “the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”

The Armenian side strongly protested against the word “other” on the grounds that it predetermines a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the dispute. Its attempts to have the controversial wording changed succeeded only after being unexpectedly backed by a group of Italian members of the 45-nation assembly during Tuesday’s debates.

The final version of the PACE statement notes that “there has been no progress in the negotiations on a settlement of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.” It also welcomes Armenia’s complete abolition of the death penalty, ratification of several pan-European conventions and passage of a law introducing an alternative to compulsory military service. The latter was a key condition for the country’s admission into the Council of Europe three years ago.

The PACE, however, voiced its “indignation” at the fact that more than 20 young men, mainly members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect, are still kept in jail for refusing to serve in the Armenian armed forces. It demanded that they all be released “immediately” and that the authorities lift a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Torosian blamed the overall negative tone of the resolution on the “ineffective work” of unspecified Armenian diplomats who he said had assured him that the PACE will take a softer stance on Armenia. Still, he stressed the fact that a similar PACE resolution on Azerbaijan was more strongly worded, with Baku given until next June to improve its human rights record or face political sanctions.
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