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By Emil Danielyan, Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has warned the Armenian authorities to end their crackdown on the opposition and immediately release all political prisoners or face embarrassing sanctions later this year.

In a resolution adopted late Wednesday, the PACE denounced the government’s heavy-handed response to the opposition campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation, saying that it is “contrary to the letter and the spirit” of its earlier recommendations to Yerevan. The Strasbourg lawmakers also dropped from the initial version of the resolution a clause that discouraged the Armenian opposition from challenging Kocharian’s disputed reelection with street protests.

The resolution, drafted by a committee monitoring the 45 member states’ compliance with their commitments, demanded that the authorities scrap “unjustified restrictions” on peaceful demonstrations, release the individuals detained for their participation in the recent anti-Kocharian rallies, investigate the “human rights abuses” and “inform the Assembly of their findings and possible legal actions against people responsible.” It called in this regard for an “immediate end” to the renewed enforcement of Armenia’s controversial Administrative Code under which dozens of opposition supporters have been imprisonment this month.

The PACE also urged the authorities to “guarantee freedom of movement inside Armenia,” an apparent reference to the effective disruption of public transport communication between Yerevan and the rest of the country ahead of virtually every opposition rally. The extraordinary measure has been aimed at preventing provincial residents from swelling the opposition crowds.

The resolution says the government in Yerevan should submit by next June a written report to the PACE detailing the steps it has taken in response to the recommendations. Their implementation will be assessed by the monitoring committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs, Rene Andre of France and Jerzy Jaskiernia of Poland. They were instructed to make a fact-finding trip to the country “as soon as appropriate.”

The resolution warns that if Yerevan makes no progress in addressing these concerns, the PACE will “reconsider the credentials of the Armenian delegation” at its autumn session next September.

Presenting the document to the Strasbourg lawmakers, Jaskiernia made it clear that while he strongly disapproves of the crackdown, he believes that the Council of Europe should not question the legitimacy of last year’s Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections because the serious fraud that marred them was “not so extensive that we could disqualify the result.” “The election naturally delivered results, and now many people are satisfied, so our approach to Armenia should be objective and balanced,” he said.

The remarks drew criticism from some of the parliamentarians attending the debate, notably Hungary's Matyas Eorsi who has monitored Armenian polls in the past. "On the one hand, there are demonstrators who want to achieve certain political goals and, on the other hand, there is a state that wants to suppress the demonstrators," he said. "We do not need to be balanced about that."

"It is difficult for us to make decisions if the factual evidence is not presented to us objectively,” complained Malcolm Bruce, a British lawmaker.

Eorsi drew parallels between the Armenian crisis and the situation in Georgia during the November “rose revolution,” saying that Yerevan should “learn” from deposed President Eduard Shevardnadze’s decision not to use force against protesters. “This should stop now,” he continued. “If it does not, we will have to make a decision about whether such a country is suitable to be a member of the Council of Europe.”

Eorsi was instrumental in the PACE’s decision to change a paragraph which said the Armenian opposition “should refrain from attempts to use street demonstrations to reverse the results of last year’s elections.” Its revised version only urges the opposition to “strive to achieve its goals within the constitutional framework.”

The Armenian members of the PACE representing Kocharian’s governing coalition tried unsuccessfully to block the change. But they did succeed in keeping a passage that the 2003 vote irregularities “did not decisively change the outcome of the elections nor invalidate their final results” in the adopted text.

The assembly also rejected a proposal to endorse the idea of the national vote of confidence in Kocharian floated by Armenia’s Constitutional Court last year. But it at the same time did not state explicitly that such a referendum must not be held.

“The Assembly calls upon the authorities and the opposition to refrain from any action which may lead to further violence and to engage in a dialogue without preconditions,” the resolution reads. Still, it admits that “there seems to be little room for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition” at present.

The PACE calls seem to have satisfied both the opposition and the three pro-presidential parties making up Armenia’s coalition government.

“That is certainly in tune with the opposition demands,” Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the Artarutyun alliance, told reporters. “They are not subject to negotiation, they are simply constitutional norms that must be respected.”

“If it weren’t for the international community, I think the regime’s efforts to cling to power would be much more brutal in Armenia,” said Vazgen Manukian, another leading member of the block.

But Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party, downplayed the significance of the PACE criticism. “In essence, nothing new was added to the proposals made by the PACE in January,” he said.

“We expected such a reaction. We also see our approaches reflected in those provisions,” said Hrair Karapetian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, another governing party.

Both Sahakian and Karapetian urged the opposition leaders to resume their talks with the ruling coalition which broke down on Tuesday. But Demirchian brushed aside the calls.

“As long as we don’t see certain practical steps, it will be unserious and pointless to talk about a dialogue,” he said, adding that the opposition will continue to fight for regime change “in a peaceful way.”

(Council of Europe photo)
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