By Ruben Meloyan
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe plans to start next month observing preparations for and conduct of Armenia’s May 12 parliamentary elections, the OSCE’s vote-monitoring arm said on Thursday.
The findings of OSCE observers will be crucial for the domestic and international legitimacy of the polls which Western powers say will put the Armenian leadership’s democratic credentials to the greatest test yet. Official Yerevan has already formally asked the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to monitor the entire electoral process.
The ODIHR spokeswoman, Urdur Gunnarsdottir, told RFE/RL that the monitoring mission is due to get underway in late March with the deployment in Yerevan of a “core team” of at least a dozen Western election experts and 24 long-term observers.
“We hope that the first observers will be there around mid-March,” Gunnarsdottir said. “That is the plan now. And the long-term observers will be arriving a week later. Before the end of March we should have a full long-term mission in place.”
She added that the ODIHR will also ask OSCE member states to send in some 300 short-term observers that will visit polling stations across Armenia on voting day and watch the counting and tabulation of ballots.
The organization dispatched a similar number of observers, most of them from Western Europe and the United States, during the previous Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections were judged to have failed to meet democratic standards due to serious fraud reported by those observers. The Armenian authorities disagreed with their critical assessments, saying that the reported irregularities did not significantly affect vote results.
A Armenian newspaper report claimed last week that President Robert Kocharian has told Western diplomats in Yerevan that the OSCE monitoring mission should not be headed by U.S. or British officials, as has been the case until now. Kocharian allegedly suggested that the job be given to a representative of France or Russia, countries that have been far less critical of his administration’s electoral record. According to Gunnarsdottir, the mission chief has not yet been selected by the OSCE.
The ODIHR director, Christian Strohal, visited Armenia last month to discuss preparations for the upcoming polls with Kocharian and other senior Armenian officials. Shortly afterwards the ODIHR dispatched a “needs assessment mission” that looked into those preparations and the overall pre-election situation in the country in greater detail.
“The authorities and other interlocutors met by [the Needs Assessment Mission] acknowledged problems with past elections and assured that the upcoming will be conducted in line with OSCE commitments and other international standards,” mission members said in a reported released on February 15.