By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg and Ruzanna Stepanian
The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, on Wednesday called on the Armenian government and the opposition to resolve their bitter dispute through negotiation and offered to mediate in such a dialogue.
“The Council of Europe supports the dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, and has a successful experience of sponsoring it in various countries,” Schwimmer told a news conference in Strasbourg. He said his permanent representative in Yerevan, Natalia Voutova, is ready to assist in arranging direct contacts between the two sides.
The offer came just hours before the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) was due to discuss the tense situation in Armenia. The issue was included on the agenda of the PACE’s spring session at the last minute despite objections voiced by Armenian pro-government lawmakers. The leaders of the Armenian opposition hope that the assembly will demand an end to the continuing government crackdown on its drive to force President Robert Kocharian to resign.
A draft PACE resolution drawn up by a committee monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its membership commitments explicitly condemns the “ruthless” crackdown, saying that it is “contrary to the letter and the spirit” of the assembly’s earlier recommendations to Yerevan. It notes in particular that the authorities have ignored Council of Europe demands to stop using the country’s controversial Code of Administrative Offences for imprisoning participants of opposition rallies en masse.
“Persons detained during the recent events were reportedly subjected to ill-treatment by police and security forces, in spite of the Assembly’s demands to take resolute and more active steps to remedy misconduct by law enforcement officials,” the document reads. “Freedom of expression continues to be seriously curtailed and several acts of violence against journalists, which took place during the recent events, were carried out or were allowed to happen by the police and security forces.”
The monitoring committee demanded that the authorities scrap “unjustified restrictions” on peaceful demonstrations, immediately release all detained opposition activists, investigate the reported human rights abuses and “inform the Assembly of their findings and possible legal actions against people responsible.”
But in a serious boost for Kocharian, its draft resolution adds that the Armenian opposition “should refrain from attempts to use street demonstrations to reverse the results of last year’s elections, which have been, in spite of the irregularities, validated by relevant national and international bodies.” Schwimmer likewise urged the opposition to “return to parliament from the streets.”
Opposition representatives and leaders of the three pro-presidential parties represented in Armenia’s government have already met this week to try to ease the tensions. The talks broke down on Tuesday, with the opposition accusing the ruling coalition of showing no signs of accepting any of its demands. The most important of them is a referendum of confidence in Kocharian suggested by the Constitutional Court in April 2003.
“I hope that our opponents will reconsider their attitude to our proposals,” Victor Dallakian of the opposition Artarutyun alliance told RFE/RL. “If the authorities take tough actions, our response will be adequate.”
Artarutyun and another major opposition group, the National Unity Party, have given the authorities until next Tuesday to address their demands or face fresh protests in downtown Yerevan.