By Karine Kalantarian
A senior European Union diplomat struck on Tuesday an optimistic note about the approaching presidential election in Armenia, saying that campaigning for the vote promises to be “lively” and should increase Armenians’ interest in politics.
“I think it will express the maturity of Armenia’s political system,” said Peter Semneby, the EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus. “It will express a high degree of pluralism in terms of political views, several candidates competing against each other. And this is very positive.”
Semneby spoke to RFE/RL at the end of his latest visit to Yerevan which he said focused on preparations for the February 19 election. He met with several declared and potential presidential candidates, including former President Levon Ter-Petrosian increasingly regarded as Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s main challenger. The diplomat said most of the opposition candidates voiced complaints about the electoral process and what they described as their lack of access to electronic media.
Semneby spoke to Ter-Petrosian on Monday and was also present at the latter’s meeting on Tuesday with the Yerevan-based ambassadors of France, Britain, Germany and six other EU member states.
“The first president [of Armenia] gave detailed answers to questions asked by the ambassadors,” Ter-Petrosian’s campaign office said in a statement. The statement said he presented to them his proposed anti-fraud amendments to the Armenian Election Code as well as documented instances of “police violence” against his supporters.
Ter-Petrosian and his allies have for weeks been accusing the Armenian authorities of harassing opposition activists and other individuals supporting his return to power. They point to the arrest and prosecution of several participants of an October 23 opposition demonstration in Yerevan as well as controversial tax evasion charges leveled against companies owned by a pro-Ter-Petrosian businessman and a TV station that aired the ex-president’s September 21 speech. They have also blamed the authorities for last week’s severe beating of a young opposition activist.
Semneby reserved judgment on both the proposed election law amendments and the harassment allegations made by the Ter-Petrosian camp, saying that those should be addressed to international election-monitoring bodies. “I think it is important that the authorities and the police make sure that throughout the election campaign the security of the candidates, their supporters and rally participants is guaranteed,” he said.
The envoy also expressed hope that the Armenian presidential ballot will be an improvement over last May’s parliamentary elections that were described as largely democratic by Western monitors. The EU also praised the Armenian authorities’ handling of the polls, with the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, saying that it sent a “positive signal to other countries in the region.”
Ter-Petrosian strongly disputed that assessment in a speech at a Yerevan rally on Friday. He claimed that the May elections were the “most disgraceful in Armenia’s history” because “vote falsifications were disguised with such ingenuity that no observer could detect them.” He said Western-led monitoring of the February vote will be “meaningless” if his proposed amendments are passed by the government-controlled National Assembly.
Under those draft amendments, all ballots for the vote will have be printed abroad and voters will have their fingers marked by indelible ink after casting them.
Garegin Azarian, chairman of the Central Election Commission, shrugged off Ter-Petrosian’s proposals on Monday, saying that the ex-president himself rigged elections while in power and has no moral right to fight against electoral fraud. “He had better address his suggestions to election falsifiers from his entourage,” Azarian told the state Armenpress news agency.
Azarian’s remarks prompted a sharp response from a small opposition party with which he was affiliated until 2002. Petros Makeyan, the leader of the pro-Ter-Petrosian Democratic Fatherland Party, said that Azarian headed a precinct election commission in Yerevan during parliamentary and presidential elections held in 1995 and 1996 respectively and never alleged vote rigging during Ter-Petrosian’s rule. “He was swearing at the time that he organized ideal elections in his district,” Makeyan told RFE/RL.
According to Makeyan, Azarian instead alleged in 1998 that Robert Kocharian’s election as president was fraudulent. “He was the one who showed how ballots were stuffed in Robert Kocharian’s favor,” claimed the oppositionist.
Azarian declined to immediately comment on the claims. A CEC spokeswoman said he will do that later on.