President Serzh Sarkisian insisted that he is committed to holding democratic elections and carrying out other “comprehensive reforms” as he addressed the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) on Wednesday.
In a 30-minute speech, Sarkisian also showcased his administration’s ongoing dialogue with the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), saying that the two rival camps are “learning” to respect and tolerate each other.
“The Armenian government has profoundly believed in and pursued the aim of sustaining progress along the democratic path … This very conviction has also underpinned the logic of the measures taken in the last three years, especially in recent months,” he said.
The Armenian leader referred to a recent series of government concessions to the HAK, which paved the way for the dialogue. That included the release of all opposition members remaining in prison and a renewed criminal investigation into the 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan.
These gestures have been welcomed by Western governments and organizations such as the Council of Europe. PACE President Mevlut Cavusoglu praised “important steps” taken by the Armenian government as he introduced Sarkisian to members of the 45-nation assembly based in the French city of Strasbourg.
“This steps resulted in the fact that the political stalemate in your country has generally been overcome and the political environment normalized,” Cavusoglu said. “A new dialogue between all political forces has now started, and it offers great opportunities for the further democratic consolidation of Armenia.”
“We learn to listen to and respect each other’s views,” Sarkisian said in his ensuing address to the PACE. “We learn and gradually adopt the understanding that the government and the opposition are not enemies. Strength is not best demonstrated by attempting to eliminate the other side.
“We learn tolerance and shape a culture of dialogue. We learn not to reciprocate insults, and we learn to consult a wider circle of stakeholders on key issues.”
“We learn to honor and appreciate the accomplishments of former leaders,” he added in an apparent reference to Levon Ter-Petrosian, the HAK’s top leader who served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998.
Sarkisian said he and his three-party governing coalition have also taken other measures to address the fallout from the country’s 2008 political crisis. He pointed to amendments to Armenian legislation regulating freedom of assembly and a planned “radical” reform of the police and the judiciary.
The president went on to promise to “spare no effort” to ensure that parliamentary elections due in Armenia next year are free and fair. “However, free and fair elections are not enough,” he said. “It is also necessary that the elections be perceived as such by the public. To this end, the recent adoption of a new Electoral Code is certainly worth mentioning.”
The HAK and other major opposition groups dismiss newly amended code, saying that the Armenian authorities still lack the political will to hold democratic elections and thus run the risk of losing power. They have for years accused Sarkisian of personally ordering and overseeing vote rigging.
The HAK insists that only pre-term polls could change the country’s culture of electoral fraud. It says this is the number one issue on the agenda of its dialogue with the government.
Sarkisian rejected, however, opposition demands for fresh elections during a question-and-answer session that followed his speech. “I am not going to hold pre-term elections in Armenia,” he said.
In his speech, Sarkisian also praised the PACE and other Council of Europe structures for their involvement in political processes going on in his country. “We have sometimes had serious differences and have respectfully disagreed with each other’s assessments,” he said. “We have, however, benefited from the exchange, the wisdom of the experience, and the constructive dialogue.”
By contrast, the HAK has repeatedly accused the Council of Europe of being too lenient towards the Sarkisian government and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Armenia for “geopolitical” considerations.