By Anna Saghabalian
A senior government official publicly branded the Armenian authorities “undemocratic” on Wednesday, accusing them of massively rigging the recent constitutional referendum and trampling on citizens’ right to own property.
The extraordinary remarks by Hranush Kharatian, head of the government department on ethnic minorities and religious affairs, were echoed by a prominent lawmaker affiliated with one of Armenia’s three governing parties. The two women did not mince their words as they commented on the main political and socioeconomic developments of the past year during a roundtable discussion in Yerevan.
Kharatian was asked whether she believes in her government’s claims that as many as 1.5 million people, or nearly two thirds of Armenia’s eligible voters, took part in the November 27 referendum and overwhelmingly voted for President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional amendments. “No I don’t,” she replied. “I toured polling stations on that day and according to my observations, only about 20 percent of the eligible voters took part [in the voting.]”
Kharatian’s estimates, which will hardly please the authorities, largely reflect the opinion of the Armenian opposition which insists that the real turnout was below 16 percent and that the referendum was blatantly rigged. Observers from the Council of Europe likewise noted a sharp contrast between empty polling stations and the official vote results.
The figures provided by the Central Election Commission were also dismissed as fraudulent by Alvard Petrosian, a parliament deputy from the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). But she suggested that the Kocharian administration may have still received about 800,000 votes needed for the passage of the constitutional changes.
Petrosian was particularly scathing about the authorities’ pre-referendum “Yes” campaign managed by Dashnaktsutyun and its coalition partners. “You have to fail to understand the people’s psychology … in order to conduct such propaganda,” she said. “Deep down, every person has an instinct of resistance and opposite reaction. If you propagate even the best thing in such an ugly fashion, a person will feel like opposing it.”
“One and a half million of our people were not so tasteless as to go to the referendum,” added the Dashnaktsutyun lawmaker. “But there is always a small active segment [of the public]. Eighty percent of that active segment said yes.”
The two women were also highly critical in their assessment of the ongoing redevelopment in central Yerevan which has led to the forced evictions of owners of old houses torn down to make room for expensive residential and office complexes. Hundreds of them are unhappy with the size of financial compensations offered by the state, saying that it was set well below the market value of their properties as a result of government corruption.
The integrity and legality of the process has also been challenged by Armenia’s Office of Human Rights Defender. The authorities deny any wrongdoing, however.
“We lacked the honesty to publicly state that we are taking illegal steps in redeveloping parts of Yerevan,” said Kharatian.
“When we introduce liberal values we must bear in mind that the right to own property is something which can not be violated. And yet we have trampled on that right,” agreed Petrosian.
Kharatian, who is also a well-known sociologist, condemned in that regard the recent arrest and prosecution on highly controversial fraud charges of a human rights lawyer who helped some of the evicted residents sue the government. “That fact once again showed that our judicial system considers [defense] advocacy worthless and is ready to resort to political solutions for the sake of any economic or social transaction,” she charged.
According to Kharatian, the referendum’s conduct and the house demolitions also demonstrate that all branches of government in Armenia are “undemocratic in a broad sense.” “I see undemocratic steps in the National Assembly, the government, the presidential administration and the judicial system,” the official said.
(Photolur photo: Hranush Kharatian.)