By Gevorg Stamboltsian in Prague and Ruben Meloyan
Armenia’s relations with the European Union hinge on a reversal of its government’s crackdown on the opposition and restoration of civil liberties restricted following the post-election unrest in Yerevan, a senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Peter Semneby, the EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus, said the bloc’s expectations from the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian “coincide more or less” with those of the Council of Europe, another pan-European organization of which Armenia is a member.
“We will therefore follow fulfillment of this agenda very closely,” he said during a visit to the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. “This will also be the basis for any decisions that we will make in terms of our future relations with Armenia.”
The diplomat referred to the April 17 resolution by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) that urged the authorities in Yerevan to release political prisoners, drop restrictions on freedom of assembly and allow an independent inquiry into the March 1 street fighting in Yerevan. The Strasbourg-based assembly warned that failure to take these steps by late June could lead to the suspension of the voting rights of its Armenian members.
Semneby, who has repeatedly visited Yerevan in the past two months, said he believes Sarkisian is committed to ensuring his government’s compliance with the resolution. “He has assured me of his commitment to dealing with these issues,” he said.
“I don’t have illusions,” added the diplomat. “There are of course going to be persons and institutions and forces [in government] with other opinions. So it remains to be seen how this agenda is going to be implemented.”
According to Semneby, officials in Yerevan are concerned that former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his allies could resume unauthorized street protests against official results of last February’s disputed presidential election. But, he said, Ter-Petrosian made clear in his last speech that he will concentrate on future elections and move into “mainstream politics.”
“There has been concern on the part of the government that he and his supporters would engage in illegal street demonstrations and so on,” said the EU envoy. “I can not talk, of course, on behalf of anybody else, but I do get the impression that the limits of the law, in terms of political activities, are very present in the mind of the first president and his supporters.”
Addressing hundreds of supporters on May 2, Ter-Petrosian said he will continue to challenge the legitimacy of Armenia’s new president but will do “everything to avoid internal political upheavals and developments threatening the country’s stability.” Still, one of his top aides, Levon Zurabian, said on Monday that the opposition leader will urge supporters to rally in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on June 20 if the authorities maintain their de facto ban on anti-government demonstrations.
In a statement on Wednesday, Ter-Petrosian’s office said the authorities are failing to meet this and other demands contained in the PACE resolution. It claimed in particular that since May 2 police have detained and questioned some 200 opposition supporters across Armenia in a bid to force them to give “false testimony against political prisoners.”
A spokeswoman for the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), one of two dozen opposition groups supporting Ter-Petrosian, claimed that about 30 people were summoned to the police headquarters of Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district on Wednesday alone. Ruzan Khachatrian linked the alleged detentions to the coup case brought against parliament deputy Hakob Hakobian, one of several dozen Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested since the March 1 unrest.
A spokesman for the Armenian police denied Khachatrian’s claim, however.