By Emil Danielyan
A key Council of Europe body effectively accused the Armenian authorities late Tuesday of rigging the recent constitutional referendum and called into question their commitment to democracy and rule of law.
“The positive outcome of the referendum is certainly to be welcomed. But the end does not justify the means,” the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said in a statement.
“Was it really necessary to stuff the ballot boxes and inflate the turnout artificially to get the reform through? The conclusions reached by the Parliamentary Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee which observed the referendum – unfortunately at only a few polling stations – and the many media and NGO reports can only cast doubt on the credibility of the official results.”
According to those results, nearly two thirds of Armenia’s 2.3 eligible voters took part in the November 27 vote and 93 percent of them endorsed constitutional changes put forward by President Robert Kocharian. The unusually high turnout sharply contrasted with empty polling stations witnessed by international and local observers as well as journalists across the country.
The Council of Europe monitors in particular noted that “the extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions.” They also claimed to have witnessed a number of serious irregularities on referendum day and urged the Armenian government to investigate them. The observers’ findings were discussed at the PACE’s winter session in Strasbourg last week.
Armenian law-enforcement authorities have not prosecuted any of the officials in charge of the referendum conduct, saying that numerous reports of vote irregularities were short on specifics. They instead brought criminal charges against three ordinary voters who allegedly cast extra ballots in place of their friends and relatives.
The PACE body, which monitors the fulfillment of Armenia’s obligations to the Strasbourg-based organization, dismissed those cases as a parody of justice, saying that the three men “seem mere scapegoats allowing the authorities to evade their political responsibilities.” The Kocharian administration’s failure to investigate other, far more serious instances of fraud “can only cast doubt on the authorities' determination to promote rule-of-law democracy,” said its statement.
The Monitoring Committee also criticized the Armenian opposition for urging voters to reject Kocharian’s amendments and recalling its representatives to the election commissions. The opposition, it said, thus “deprived itself of the possibility of contesting in court the frauds and irregularities of which it complained.”
The Council of Europe and its so-called Venice Commission have been a key driving force behind the Armenian constitutional reform aimed at curtailing sweeping powers vested in the Armenian presidency and strengthening the judiciary. They have said all along that the amendments will facilitate Armenia’s democratization and European integration.
Speaking to RFE/RL in December, the secretary of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, said that despite the reported fraud, the referendum did bring Armenia closer to meeting European standards for democracy and human rights. The Monitoring Committee likewise welcomed the passage of the amendments but cautioned that only their full implementation can “bring the country genuinely closer to European values.”
“This is a question not just of at last adopting the legislative reforms hitherto blocked by an unsuitable Constitution, but above all of creating a political climate which will ensure that the parliamentary elections in 2007, and the presidential election in 2008, respect European standards,” said the statement.
“The Monitoring Committee now expects the Armenian authorities to produce a detailed timetable for adoption of the reforms which Armenia must complete to honor its obligations and commitments to the Council of Europe,” it added.
The authorities insist that the amendments won sufficient popular support, with Kocharian thanking Armenians on November 29 for their “unequivocal and resolute” endorsement of his Western-backed initiative. “This is a great victory for the efforts to strengthen democracy and form civil society in Armenia,” he said in a written address to the nation.