By Armen Zakarian
Representatives of the Council of Europe began arriving in Armenia on Thursday to monitor Sunday’s constitutional referendum, the international legitimacy of which will greatly depend on their findings.
The Strasbourg-based organization’s 18-strong team is the only Western monitoring group that will be present at the voting and counting of ballots. Most of them represent the council’s Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRAE).
The head of the Council of Europe office in Yerevan, Bojana Urumova, told RFE/RL that they will meet with election officials and representatives of various political parties and non-governmental organizations before visiting polling stations across Armenia on voting day. The small number of the observers means that they will be unable to cover the entire country.
Urumova said they will likely focus on “areas which have displayed [electoral] problems in the past.” They feel “considerable responsibility” for their mission, she said.
The Council of Europe has monitored Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections together with much bigger observer missions fielded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE has controversially decided not to monitor the upcoming referendum, citing the lack of a formal invitation from the Armenian government.
“It will be more challenging than usual for the Council of Europe observers,” admitted Urumova. “But I’m sure that the observers will do their best to observe this referendum with resources that we have.”
The Council of Europe has strongly endorsed constitutional amendments drafted by the Armenian authorities and makes no secret of its desire to see a positive outcome of the referendum. PACE President Rene van der Linden warned this week that failure to enact those amendments could set back Armenia’s European integration.
European officials deny that such statements the authorities the license to push through the amendments at any cost, including vote rigging. “I hope that the referendum will be conducted in a free and fair manner,” said Urumova. Asked what will happen if the vote is marred by serious irregularities, she replied: “We should wait and see what is observed and wait for the statement to be made by the observers on November 28.”
The head of Armenia’s largest election-monitoring organization claimed Choice is Yours said earlier that the Council of Europe mission will be too small to draw objective conclusions about the conduct of the plebiscite. Harutiun Hambartsumian said this is the reason why his organization’s negative assessment of recent Armenian local elections contrasted with the largely positive findings of CLRAE observers. He said Choice is Yours will deploy some 2,000 observers during the referendum.