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By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Armenia can no longer afford to hold elections falling short of democratic standards and must therefore “draw the line” under its post-Soviet history of electoral fraud, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said in a newspaper interview published on Thursday.

“Everyone must realize that we simply have no more room for holding bad elections because this time the damage to our people would be not only moral but also material,” he told the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily.

In remarks clearly directed at the country’s leadership, Oskanian specifically warned of a repeat of serious fraud in parliamentary elections expected next spring. “Some people, political forces would have to be held answerable, probably during the elections,” he said without naming anyone. “If there are violations and if there are [negative] consequences as a result, it will be obvious who those people are and they must be really held answerable before the people.”

Similar warnings were issued recently by leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential party represented in President Robert Kocharian’s cabinet. They said Dashnaktsutyun will move into opposition to the Kocharian administration if the approaching elections are marred by widespread irregularities.

The Dashnaktsutyun warnings appeared primarily addressed to the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) which many fear will try to retain its de facto control of the next National Assembly at any coast. Analysts say the HHK’s unofficial leader, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, considers its victory vital for the success of his reputed presidential ambitions.

The freedom and fairness of the 2007 elections will be essential for the provision of $235 million in additional U.S. assistance to Armenia under the Millennium Challenge Program. The first major installment of the aid package promised by the U.S. government is not expected to be disbursed before the polls. The European Union, for its part, has made it clear that their failure to meet democratic standards would jeopardize Armenia’s participation in the European Neighborhood Policy program of preferential ties with the bloc’s neighbors.

Both the United States and the EU have strongly criticized just about every presidential and parliamentary elections held in Armenia and monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe until now. The Armenian authorities have already assured them that next year’s vote will be more democratic.

Still, the West appears concerned about their failure so far to formally ask the OSCE to monitor the vote. The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Julie Finley, on Thursday continued to press Armenian leaders to extend such an invitation , stressing the need for the deployment of a “long-term” OSCE monitoring mission on the second day of her visit to Yerevan.

“None of the officials has said that they don’t want observers,” Finley told reporters. “What they have said is that the government is awaiting the announcement of the date of the elections before they can do anything.”

“We would encourage the government to invite the OSCE to conduct a long-term observation as well as a short-term observation because we all know that the lead-up to the election is as critical as election day itself,” she said.

Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian appeared to agreed with her. “In my view, all influential international organizations that have traditionally monitored elections, should be invited,” he told RFE/RL.

Torosian also discussed the issue on Thursday at a separate meeting with Vladimir Pryakhin, the Russian head of the OSCE office in Yerevan. “Ambassador Pryakhin said the OSCE was ready to assist Armenia in conducting elections according to international standards, and … to send an observation mission provided an invitation was issued by the Armenian authorities in a timely manner,” the office said in a written statement. “The Chairman of the National Assembly agreed that the invitation should be issued as soon as possible.”

The Armenian government effectively prevented the OSCE from monitoring last November’s disputed constitutional referendum, prompting U.S. and EU criticism. The vote was monitored instead by a small group of officials from the Council of Europe who questioned the credibility of its official results.

It is not clear which Armenian government agency is in charge of extending formal invitations to the OSCE and its election-monitoring arm, the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The Foreign Ministry, the National Assembly and the Central Election Commission all claimed ahead of the November referendum this is not their prerogative. However, Oskanian’s ministry did send such invitations in the past.

(Photolur photo)
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