By Emil Danielyan
A senior official from the Council of Europe monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its membership commitments to the human rights body made on Friday a largely positive assessment of the three-year process.
Ambassador Pietro Ago, who represents the organization’s decision-making Committee of Ministers, said the Armenian authorities should be “congratulated for their good actions” which he said are fostering the country’s democratization. Ending a two-day fact-finding visit to Yerevan, he pointed to the abolition of the death penalty in Armenia and passage of new laws on mass media, human rights ombudsman and alternative service.
The overall tone of Ago’s concluding remarks was clearly more positive than that of a resolution on Armenia adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) last week. The assembly, whose decisions are not binding for the Committee of Ministers, said “no progress has been made in the current reforms” over the past year. It denounced “massive fraud” in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections as well as the authorities’ failure to ensure media pluralism, the independence of the judiciary and legalize a non-traditional religious group.
Ago said his report to the Strasbourg body will be “very much along the lines” of the PACE resolution. However, he made only scant reference to the 2003 elections and media freedom, focusing instead on the failure of last year’s referendum on President Robert Kocharian’s package of constitutional amendments.
Ago’s trip coincided with a boycott of the parliament sessions by Armenia’s two main opposition groups demanding a different referendum that would determine whether Armenians want Kocharian to stay in power for the next four years. The Strasbourg-based Italian diplomat held separate meetings with their leaders as part of the trips.
“We have to say that we found Armenian society a bit divided,” he said. “We had not expected to be confronted with a call for keeping out of parliament that was presented to us by the opposition. But I hope that this situation can be solved soon because some of the amendments that have to be made…are so important that they should have the support of the entire society.”
Ago would not comment on how justified the opposition demands for the referendum of confidence in Kocharian are. “This question came to our attention only yesterday morning. We are not aware and sufficiently informed of the matter,” he said.
The Council of Europe’s unwillingness to endorse such a referendum drew praise from Oskanian. “See, the Committee of Ministers is not even aware of our parliamentary developments,” he told journalists.
Ago also expressed “disappointment” at the authorities’ failure to reverse the closure of Armenia’s leading independent television, A1+, but indicated that the Council of Europe lacks the powers to have the de facto ban lifted. “The Council of Europe can not do anything specific on A1+ because it is a matter of internal regulation,” he said. “We can only ask for specific informations on the integrity of the tenders and encourage the government to ensure media pluralism,” he said.
The Council of Europe was among authoritative international organizations that condemned the authorities’ decision in April 2002 to strip A1+ of its broadcasting license on dubious grounds. Its leaders said later in 2002 that they received assurances from Kocharian that the once popular channel, known for its hard-hitting coverage of the government, will be allowed to resume broadcasts.
Visiting Yerevan in May 2002, Ago said: “We reached an understanding [with the authorities] that the Council of Europe experts will work with Armenian experts to ensure that when new frequencies are allotted, A1+ can successfully participate in those tenders. So this problem will be solved in the near future.”
A1+ has since participated in several frequency tenders and lost all of them. No further biddings are scheduled for the next five years.