By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Thursday that it will not send observers to Armenia to monitor the conduct of the upcoming constitutional referendum despite Armenian opposition concerns about a possible falsification of its results.
The decision is certain to boost the Armenian authorities’ chances of enacting a controversial package of constitutional amendments endorsed by the United States and leading pan-European organizations. The spokeswoman for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE’s main election-monitoring arm, attributed it to a lack of a formal invitation from official Yerevan.
“We have not received an invitation,” the official, Urdur Gunnarsdottir, told RFE/RL. “We do not observe [elections and referendums] without receiving an invitation.”
Asked whether the OSCE would definitely deploy a monitoring mission if it was asked to, Gunnarsdottir said, “We can’t say that. We would have looked into the invitation.”
Politicians campaigning for the passage of President Robert Kocharian’s draft amendments said such invitations are usually extended by the Armenian Foreign Ministry. But its chief spokesman, Hamlet Gasparian, claimed that the ministry has no such responsibility, referring all inquires to the Armenian parliament. However, officials at the National Assembly as well as the Central Election Commission insisted that it is not their job to invite foreign observers.
Nor is it clear if the United States and other Western powers asked the Armenian authorities to invite OSCE observers. “We have already made it very clear in a number of ways that this referendum should be carried out as a free and fair vote of the Armenian people,” U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans said in an RFE/RL interview in September. But he would not say what will happen if the vote is marred by serious irregularities.
The OSCE’s findings are crucial for the international legitimacy of elections and referendums held in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The organization monitored each of the presidential and parliamentary elections held in Armenia over the past decade, deploying more than 200 observers on each occasion.
The monitoring missions were usually headed by senior U.S. diplomats. None of the Armenian elections were described as democratic due to serious irregularities reported by OSCE observers.
The ODIHR official would not speculate on whether the absence of a large number of Western monitors will deal a serious blow to the freedom and fairness of the November referendum. “Obviously, we can’t comment on that because we are not going to be there,” she said.
According to the head of Armenia’s largest independent election-monitoring organization called the Choice is Yours, that will complicate efforts to prevent and expose possible vote rigging. “The presence of Western observers in polling stations always held election officials in check,” Harutiun Hambartsumian told RFE/RL.
The only European body that will watch the Armenian referendum is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). However, it emerged on Wednesday that the PACE’s observation mission will comprise only a dozen members. Hambartsumian believes that the team will be too small to draw objective conclusions about the conduct of the plebiscite. The Choice is Yours, by contrast, plans to deploy more than 2,000 observers, he said.
The Council of Europe fielded seven observers for the recent local elections held across Armenia. Their positive assessment of the polls sharply contrasted with widespread irregularities reported by the Choice is Yours and other local watchdogs. “A 7-strong monitoring group could not have worked in an effective way and presented the real picture,” said Hambartsumian.
Hambartsumian also questioned the authorities’ commitment to ensuring a clean referendum. “I didn’t see such will during the local elections,” he said. “But let us hope to see that will during the referendum. This will be a chance to restore public trust [in electoral processes.] The people are really sick and tired of flawed elections and the fact that their votes make little difference.”