By Karine Kalantarian
The head of the election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wound up on Tuesday a two-day visit to Armenia that focused on its unfolding preparations for crucial parliamentary elections due in May.
Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), discussed the issue in meetings with President Robert Kocharian, parliament speaker Tigran Torosian and other Armenian officials.
Speaking to RFE/RL after a meeting with the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Strohal said Armenia is “ready” to hold its first-ever national election judged free and fair by the international community. “But we shall see after the elections themselves,” he said.
The Armenian parliament’s press service quoted the Austrian diplomat as telling Torosian later in the day that there are “good prerequisites” for making sure that the forthcoming vote meets democratic standards. Torosian was quoted as saying that it should mark a “turning point” in Armenia’s transition to democracy and European integration.
OSCE/ODIHR observers described as undemocratic the previous presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia, giving weight to opposition allegations of massive vote rigging. The United States and the European Union have warned that a repeat of serious fraud would jeopardize Yerevan’s efforts to build closer ties with the West. Kocharian and other Armenian leaders have assured Western powers that they will do their best to ensure proper conduct of the next polls.
Strohal’s talks in Yerevan specifically centered on their monitoring by the OSCE. Visiting the Armenian capital last fall, the U.S. ambassador at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Julie Finley, expressed concern about the Kocharian administration’s failure so far to formally invite the ODIHR to send long-term and short-term observer missions.
Both Torosian and other leaders of the parliament majority assured the ODIHR chief that such an invitation will be extended immediately after Kocharian sets an official election date. According to the Armenian speaker, a corresponding presidential decree will be signed early next month.
“There will be invitations for both short-term and long-term monitoring missions,” Samvel Nikoyan, a senior lawmaker from the governing Republican Party, told RFE/RL. He said the OSCE will send a “needs assessment team” to Yerevan later in February before beginning to deploy observers.
“This means long-term monitoring will last for approximately two months,” said Grigor Harutiunian of the opposition Artarutyun alliance. “Given the political situation in the country, this is certainly not enough.” OSCE monitoring should have begun last month, he added.
Strohal insisted, however, that European observers will have enough time to monitor the entire electoral process. “I understand these elections might be in May, and it’s now January,” he said.