By Anush Martirosian and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian authorities will not only avoid Council of Europe sanctions but pave the way for dialogue with their political opponents if they release dozens of opposition members remaining in prison, a top aide to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian said on Monday.
Meanwhile, the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) remained hopeful that the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will not suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members at its upcoming session in Strasbourg.
The PACE’s Monitoring Committee urged the 47-nation assembly last month to impose the sanctions, saying that Yerevan has failed to fully comply with two PACE resolutions on Armenia that were adopted in April and June 2008. The resolutions demanded, among other things, the immediate release of more than 100 Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.”
Some 70 oppositionists, including Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign chief and three parliament deputies, remain in jail. The Monitoring Committee for the first time described them as “political prisoners” in a major blow to the credibility of government allegations that the Armenian opposition attempted to stage a coup d’etat. Its two Armenia rapporteurs are due to arrive in Yerevan later this week for last-minute negotiations with government and opposition representatives.
Levon Zurabian, a leading member of Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance, said President Serzh Sarkisian and his governing coalition still have time to spare Armenia embarrassing sanctions that have rarely been imposed on Council of Europe member states. He said they also have a chance to dramatically ease lingering post-election tensions in the country.
“There is one obvious step which is demanded by the international community, our society and which can drastically change the political atmosphere in Armenia,” Zurabian told RFE/RL. “That is the liberation of the political prisoners. After the liberation of the political prisoners the situation in and outside [the country] will change.”
“We would at last be able to sit at the negotiation table and discuss ways of overcoming this political crisis,” he said, reaffirming the main opposition precondition for dialogue with the government camp.
The Armenian authorities have consistently denied the existence of political prisoners in the country. They also claim to have mainly complied with the PACE resolutions.
“I think the authorities led by the president have done quite a lot to avoid sanctions,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the ruling HHK. “I regard as dim the prospect of Armenia losing its voting right because I have seen no serious grounds for that.”
Sharmazanov at the same time appeared to play down the significance of the sanctions threatened by the PACE. “If the Republic of Armenia loses its right to vote in that structure, that will not stem from its interests,” he told journalists. “But I am not of the opinion that if we are deprived of our vote an era of darkness will start and it will be the end of the story.”
Samvel Nikoyan, a senior HHK parliamentarian, similarly said in a newspaper interview published on Friday that the loss of the PACE vote would not be a “tragedy” for Armenia. “We must think about the stability of our country, our society, the internal atmosphere, rather than whether or not we will be stripped of our right to vote,” he told the “Aravot” daily.
However, another, more influential HHK figure, parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian, considers the punitive action threatened by the PACE to be “extremely damaging” for Armenia. In a December 30 letter obtained by RFE/RL on Monday, Abrahamian urged fellow speakers from other Council of Europe member states to use their influence to prevent the sanctions. He said they would undermine “internal stability” in Armenia and even hurt its economy.
(Photolur photo: Levon Zurabian.)