By Karine Kalantarian
In an apparent response to international criticism, the Armenian authorities have promised to investigate media reports of serious fraud that marred the weekend constitutional referendum.
Armenia’s Office of Prosecutor-General revealed on Thursday that it has set up an ad hoc commission tasked with looking into the instances of ballot box stuffing, forgery of voter signatures and other irregularities reported by the local press.
Sources in the law-enforcement agency told RFE/RL that the commission will study about 40 pages of newspaper articles alleging serious fraud. They said it will decide by the beginning of next week whether to bring criminal charges against officials involved in the conduct of the disputed poll.
The decision comes amid opposition allegations that the administration of President Robert Kocharian has rigged the referendum to push through its amendments to the Armenian constitution. According to official results, a record-high 65 percent of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters took part in the vote and 93 percent of them voted for the amendments.
However, the reported high turnout was at odds with largely empty polling stations. The Armenian opposition claims that it was below 16 percent.
“The extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions,” a monitoring mission from the Council of Europe said in a statement on Monday. “There were also clear instances of forged additional signatures on the voters register and of ballot stuffing.”
The findings of the Council of Europe were explicitly endorsed by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian in a newspaper interview published on Thursday. “It is obvious that there was ballot stuffing,” he told the “Aravot” daily.
Still, Kocharian and his governing coalition, including Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party, have said that the reported violations did not affect the legitimacy and outcome of the referendum.
The law-enforcement authorities announced a similar inquiry in the wake of the last presidential election that was criticized by the West in even stronger terms. But no Armenian government official is known to have faced criminal prosecution for electoral fraud.
The prosecutors’ latest pledge was dismissed as a cop-out by the opposition. Artak Zeynalian, who coordinated opposition monitoring of the referendum, said he expects “no concrete action” from them.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, who has campaigned for the passage of the constitutional changes through his Nig-Aparan organization, sparked a controversy last week with a stern warning issued to members of the election commissions representing the opposition. He threatened to prosecute those of them who will comply with opposition leaders’ instructions to boycott the work of those bodies. The opposition says he can not do that under Armenian law.
(Photolur photo: Aghvan Hovsepian.)