By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Astghik Bedevian and Anna Saghabalian
A senior diplomat insisted on the European Union’s calls for the Armenian government to end its crackdown on the opposition and restore civil liberties as he began yet another fact-finding trip to Yerevan on Wednesday.
Peter Semneby, the EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus, told parliament speaker Tigran Torosian that the release of political prisoners, the launch of an independent investigation into the deadly post-election violence in Yerevan and the restoration of freedom of assembly is essential for easing political tensions in Armenia. That would also facilitate a dialogue between the country’s leadership and its opponents led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, he said.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) made virtually the same demands in an April 17 resolution on the dramatic developments that followed Armenia’s February 19 presidential election. It warned that failure to meet those demands would put at risk Yerevan’s full membership in the Strasbourg-based organization.
Semneby met Ter-Petrosian earlier in the day and, according to the Armenian parliament’s press office, found “certain changes” in the opposition leader’s views on how to defuse the country’s worst political crisis in nearly a decade. The office cited the diplomat as saying that Ter-Petrosian expressed “readiness to engage in purely political processes.”
In a long speech last Friday, Ter-Petrosian said that while continuing to strive for regime change, he will avoid taking actions that could cause further “upheavals” and destabilize the political situation.
Torosian was quoted by his press service as complaining that the outspoken ex-president continues to blame the authorities for the March 1 clashes between his supporters and riot police, which left at least ten people dead, and to set preconditions for engaging in dialogue with the authorities. Ter-Petrosian reiterated that he is ready to talk to what he considers an illegitimate regime only if the latter takes the actions demanded by the EU and the PACE.
Torosian assured the visiting EU envoy that Yerevan is committed to addressing the European concerns, pointing to the creation last week of a presidential commission tasked with ensuring Armenia’s compliance with the PACE resolution. He also cited his own decision on Tuesday to set up a separate body that will look into international criticism of Armenian elections and suggest ways of improving their conduct in the future
The commission will be headed by David Harutiunian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, and comprise members of all parties represented in the National Assembly. Members of the parliament and Central Election Commission staffs as well as representatives of parties and non-governmental organizations will also be invited to join the body without the right to vote on its decisions.
Speaking to RFE/RL on Wednesday, Harutiunian expressed hope that a representative of the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition will also take part in its work. “I expect that they will react [to the offer,]” he said. “After all, this issue is on everybody’s agenda. That includes the authority, the coalition and especially the opposition.”
However, a spokesman for Ter-Petrosian dismissed the invitation, claiming that “election falsifiers are simply trying to imitate reforms.” “After every disgraceful election they try to set up commissions, working groups in order to ‘reform’ the Election Code,” Arman Musinian told RFE/RL. “The code does not say that opposition proxies can be pistol-whipped and subjected to other forms of violence. What are they going to reform?”
Senior members of the less radical Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, the only opposition group represented in the National Assembly, were also skeptical, even though they agreed to join Harutiunian’s group. “Achieving results only with legislative methods is not realistic,” said Armen Martirosian, a Zharangutyun parliamentarian. “What we need in the first instance is political will to hold free and fair elections. We haven’t seen that yet.”
“Law plays a large role, but of course it can not solve all problems,” noted Harutiunian. “You can hold a very good election but still have a lack of public trust,” he added. “We must regard that lack of trust as a very important problem.”
Zaruhi Postanjian, another Zharangutyun deputy and a well-known lawyer, believes that the authorities can prove their stated readiness to end the crackdown only by freeing more than 100 Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested on a string of controversial charges since late February. Postanjian claimed that they have not only failed to do that but have unleashed a “second phase of repressions” against opposition activists. “This is not something that creates fertile ground for staring dialogue and ending the crisis,” she said.
The Ter-Petrosian camp says police and other security bodies have continued to detain and intimidate its supporters across Armenia even after the adoption of the PACE resolution. Reports in the Armenian press said at least 12 people were rounded up and interrogated on Tuesday alone.
A coalition of three Armenian non-governmental organizations that opened an election fraud hotline last year said on Wednesday that it continues to receive phone calls from citizens alleging police harassment and other human rights abuses.