By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Senior representatives of the Council of Europe met Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian and his leading political allies on Tuesday to discuss their proposals on how to end Armenia’s most serious political crisis in nearly a decade.
The members of the so-called Ago Group monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its Council of Europe commitments arrived in Yerevan on a fact-finding mission at the weekend. Speaking after talks with top law-enforcement officials on Monday, they urged the Armenian authorities allow an independent investigation into the post-election violence in Yerevan, release political prisoners and scrap their controversial restrictions on freedom of assembly. They also called for an unconditional dialogue between the authorities and the opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The Strasbourg-based officials reiterated their proposals during their meetings with Sarkisian. Per Sjogren, head of the Ago Group, was cited by the Armenian government as saying that their acceptance would ease tensions in the wake of the country’s disputed presidential election held on February 19.
A government statement did not say whether Sarkisian agreed with the Council of Europe plan. It only quoted him as telling Sjogren and other members of the delegation that he has always been open to dialogue with various political groups. Sarkisian pointed to the signing of a power-sharing agreement between his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and three other parties represented in parties.
The leaders of two of those parties, Vahan Hovannisian and Artur Baghdasarian challenged Sarkisian in the presidential election. Unlike Ter-Petrosian, they accepted the legitimacy of Sarkisian’s victory.
Both Baghdasarian and Hovannisian held separate meetings with the visiting Council of Europe officials and said the latter’s proposals are largely acceptable to their parties. However, they stopped short of calling for the release of any of the more than 100 Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested in the ongoing government crackdown on the opposition.
“We can not classify all of them into a single category of prisoners,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL. “Among the prisoners are those who shot or threw grenades at police officers, who looted shops.”
“We must first clarify whether or not there are political prisoners, whether people accused of inciting mass riots were really arrested for inciting mass riots,” he said.
Baghdasarian, for his part, said Armenian law-enforcement authorities must be able to continue their criminal investigation into the March 1 deadly clashes between riot police and thousands of opposition protesters. Ter-Petrosian and his allies have denounced the investigation as a witch-hunt aimed at staving off further street protests against what they consider fraudulent vote results.
The Council of Europe proposals were explicitly welcomed by Zharangutyun (Heritage), the only opposition party that holds seats in the National Assembly. The Ago Group diplomats met separately with Zharangutyun leader Raffi Hovannisian and members of the party’s small parliament faction.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Hovannisian said the authorities have so far failed to take any meaningful steps that would facilitate dialogue. “If no steps are taken before [Sarkisian’s inauguration slated for] April 9 or immediately afterwards, we will only delay further upheavals,” he warned.
“The political crisis is fact. We can’t carry on with the same tempo [of change,]” agreed David Harutiunian, a former justice minister who heads the Armenian delegation at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). “We have two paths to follow: either a decline or a drastic rise.”
Harutiunian, who is affiliated with the HHK, insisted that Sarkisian is committed to addressing chronic vote rigging, strengthening judicial independence and implementing other political reforms.
(Photolur photo: Per Sjogren.)