By Emil Danielyan
The European Union has deplored serious irregularities reported during Armenia’s disputed constitutional referendum, saying that they raised fresh questions about the Armenian government’s commitment to democracy.
“The EU is concerned at reports of ballot stuffing and manipulation of the turnout figures and of intimidation of local observers during the referendum held on 27 November. A failure to prevent activities such as this call into question Armenia's commitment to transparency and democracy,” the British embassy in Yerevan said in a weekend statement issued on behalf of the 25-nation union.
The statement cited the preliminary findings of a monitoring mission from the Council of Europe that effectively challenged the official referendum results which led the Armenian authorities to declare their package of constitutional amendments passed. The 14-strong mission noted in particular a striking discrepancy between largely empty polling stations and a record-high voter turnout reported by the government-controlled Central Election Commission. Armenian officials insist that the irregularities were not serious enough to affect the outcome of the vote.
“The EU urges the Government of Armenia … to take seriously the Council of Europe observers’ recommendation of a thorough investigation into the allegations of fraud, and calls on the Government of Armenia to ensure that those responsible are brought to account,” read the EU statement.
Both the EU and the Council of Europe have endorsed the constitutional changes that purport to curtail sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president. The British embassy reiterated the EU view that the amendments “will pave the way for the strengthening of democracy in Armenia.” But it indicated that laws alone can not make the country more democratic.
“Proper conduct of the whole electoral process is crucial for the democratic credentials of Armenia, particularly in view of the parliamentary and presidential elections which are due to be held in 2007 and 2008 respectively,” read the EU statement. “Against this background, the EU would have welcomed a decision by the Government of Armenia to invite the OSCE/ODIHR to observe the referendum.”
However, it remains unclear whether the EU or the United States had pressed the administration of President Robert Kocharian to extend such an invitation. None of the EU’s Yerevan-based ambassadors publicly stressed the importance of OSCE monitoring of the referendum before November 27. Some local commentators suggest that the apparent lack of Western interest in the conduct of the vote was interpreted by the Kocharian administration as a blank check to enact the constitutional draft at any cost.
The EU also “regretted” the Armenian opposition’s decision to call for a popular boycott of the vote and withdraw from the commissions that handled it. “The EU calls on all parties to ensure that any demonstrations continue to be peaceful in nature,” concluded the statement.