RFE/RL Armenian Service Director Harry Tamrazian on Saturday sat with Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, the head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, for an exclusive interview in which the Swiss diplomat assesses the course of the Armenian presidential election so far.
Below is the full transcript of the interview:
RFE/RL: Madam Ambassador, there was an assassination attempt against one of the leading presidential candidates, Paruyr Hairikian, who is a legendary human rights activist. He was wounded and hospitalized and he stayed in hospital for some five days. Actually, he wasn’t able to go outside to meet his constituency and talk to them, explain his programs and he was actually running his campaign from the hospital through television and radio interviews…And also he had the right to ask the Constitutional Court to postpone the elections for at least two weeks, but he didn’t do that. So, what’s your opinion? How was this case handled by the government, by the authorities? Did you see any pressure from the government? And the second question about this: what was the impact on the entire pre-election process?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Let me first say that this incident is, of course, highly regrettable and I really wish the candidate good recovery, because it is, of course, terrible. Any attack on a person in this way has an impact, a terrible impact. But let me say that we have also reacted quite quickly – the ODIHR director immediately stated his concern about this incident and requested the authorities to investigate the case. So far we know that the authorities are investigating the crime. And in the press release the director also expressed his hope that this incident will not have an impact on the campaign. The candidate had the possibility within five days to request the Constitutional Court to postpone the election for two weeks. On February 5 he decided not to do so. But we know also that there is again consideration, he is back to the hospital now and that the case may be opened again. So, in this situation it is extremely difficult to make any statement that would be valid. It would be just speculation. But we wish him good recovery.
RFE/RL: But do you think that the case was handled properly so far?
Ambassador Tagliavini: The candidate had the possibility to appeal. He decided not to appeal. The crime is [being] investigated, of course we hope that it is investigated. We know already that some results have come out of this investigation, but I can’t say more than that.
RFE/RL: Madame Ambassador, how do you evaluate the pre-election situation? After your first interim report you were hoping that the government would not use administrative resources during the presidential campaign. Did you get complaints from the candidates about this issue? You have also now the second interim report.
Ambassador Tagliavini: Exactly. I was about to refer to the second interim report, which has already many more observations of our 24 long-term observers who are in the field, they are deployed throughout Armenia to observe how the preparations for the elections are going in the countryside. And from their reports we hear, of course, about the use of administrative resources, and our finding so far was that the distinction between campaign activity and state functions appears to be blurred. And we give a number of examples, such as governors’ taking leave, it’s a formal leave to campaign in favor of the incumbent. Teachers that are told to attend rallies, meetings, campaign meetings and so on. We have heard, we have talked, of course, to all the candidates, and several candidates have mentioned a number of allegations, let’s put it that way. So far the allegations are about voter list deficiencies and the allegation about the misuse of administrative resources. And then also a sort of a general lack of trust in the integrity of the electoral process.
RFE/RL: Madame Ambassador, the presidential team has already issued a statement in response to your second interim report in which you cite long-term observers, according to whom the incumbents allegedly are using campaign offices located in public and government buildings. The presidential team, however, says that the buildings that are mentioned in your report are not public property or belong to the local government, they were actually rented from the third party. What would you say? And they are also suggesting meeting with you, discussing case by case. What’s your reaction?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Let me first have sort of general remark. In our observations, in our reports we do not invent, we don’t just go, look and say, ‘Aha, and this is like this.’ We go and we talk, we talk to people, we talk to election-related interlocutors, and we look on the spot where the campaign building is located. We base our findings on what we are told. Now we have, of course, also seen the comments made on our interim report, but I can tell you that we are already having meetings with relevant bodies, with the campaign offices to clarify this. But once more, our observations are based on what we are told. If things, facts turn out to be otherwise, we would, of course, accept it. But so far our findings have been verified several times.
RFE/RL: And there is this kind of working group set up by the presidential administration to address shortcomings of the previous elections. What happened to the group? Do you have any report on that? Are they working, fixing things?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Well, let me say, first of all, that all this happened, of course, before my arrival to Armenia. I have not been part of the past election observation mission, which observed the parliamentary election, but I know there has been a working group set up by a presidential decree. This working group has worked through summer and came up with a kind of an action plan, which was sent to our headquarters, to the ODIHR office in Warsaw. And it was in October, very close to the next presidential election. And that’s the reason why our office in Warsaw, while assessing that it was a laudable effort to have a working group working on recommendations, also advised rather not to change any provision with regard to electoral law so close to the next election. And it is also the Venice Commission comment which says the practice actually requires that such change is made a year before elections, at least one year before the coming elections. So the idea now would be that when the presidential election is over, ODIHR will come up with the final report, which will also have recommendations, after which ODIHR is ready to come back to Armenia and to discuss all these different recommendations, but in an inclusive process, in which all state and election-related bodies, parties, civil society are part of the process.
RFE/RL: Madame Ambassador, what are your main observations so far? And speaking in general, you had your first interim report, the second report, when you look at all this process and its development, what is your main observation, what do you recommend at this stage of the election campaign?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Let me say that at this stage we don’t recommend, we try not even to assess too much, because assessments and recommendations are for the period after the election. But so far what we can say – and those who have seen the second interim report have seen this – we observe this campaign as being rather low key in the sense that it is not a highly exciting event throughout the city, it is rather of a low visibility. We, of course, noted the blurred distinction between the campaign activities and the state functions, with the leave of state officials, what I have mentioned already, with compelling teachers, students, medical staff to attend events and so on. But I would like to underline that, for example, the election administration preparations are going ahead according to schedule. We know that all the 1,988 precinct election commissions (PEC) have been formed, we know that trainings are being given to PEC members and our long-term observers assess these trainings as positive. And the Central Election Commission is working in an open and transparent manner. So again, we have also noticed, for example, these allegations about voter list deficiencies. We are in constant contact with the passport and visa department and the police on improvement of the voters list and so far we see that there has been an effort to raise the citizens’ awareness of the fact that they can actually verify their names, their addresses, they can verify the data, which is in the voter lists. And also, as you know, we also monitor, of course, several media, such as six television channels, two radio channels, three newspapers and two online media. And so far we see that actually all candidates are being covered regularly. We note, of course, that the incumbent and Raffi Hovannisian, for example, are covered more. That may have to do with the fact that they are campaigning more actively than other candidates.
RFE/RL: They have party structures all over…
Ambassador Tagliavini: And, of course, we have also noted the fact that candidate Paruyr Hairikian, as a consequence of the attack on him, has been covered more extensively. But this has to do with the particular situation.
RFE/RL: Madame Ambassador, yesterday the president was referring to the fact that there is no excitement [in the election], and he says that’s a good thing, and he is saying that it’s good when everything is quiet. In some sense I would agree with him, because in European countries it’s like a nonevent, when there is an election, people don’t care that much, you know, as opposed to former Soviet countries, where it is a big event. He was trying to hint at the fact that the lack of excitement is a good thing, not a bad thing...
Ambassador Tagliavini: Well, I would like in that case to refer again to the qualification in our second interim report when we say the campaign so far was low key and of limited visibility and this is no positive or negative sign. I think this is just what we can find. If you come as a foreign citizen to this country and you look around you don’t automatically see demonstrations all over. But again, we don’t want to say that this is good or bad. But low key is actually… it means that everything is going in a way that preparations are underway, but not in a very visible way.
RFE/RL: So, it’s not necessarily a negative or positive finding, rather it is stating the fact.
Ambassador Tagliavini: It is a qualification as we assess it.
RFE/RL: Madame Ambassador, you were the head of the OSCE/ODIHR observation mission in Russia and you had pretty tough findings there. I remember also you from that election, it was 2011.
Ambassador Tagliavini: And 2012, also at the presidential election...
RFE/RL: Do you see any difference between these two countries, between these two nations? You were observing there and here and perhaps, maybe you can put it into the context of former Soviet republics. What would you say on this?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Let me first say that I would really not like to compare any election, not even in Armenia, the previous election with the next election. An election is always an event in itself. Now if you take two countries like Russia and Armenia, the sheer size of Russia makes it a totally different situation, of course, with different history, different political systems. But the thing is not only in that matter. Every country has its own electoral law, a system of how to regulate the elections. For example, Armenia has an electoral code, which is actually a recommendable thing, to have an electoral code. Many countries do not have one code, but many different laws, which makes it a bit difficult to find your way through, so already from that point of view it is very difficult to compare elections.
RFE/RL: So we have the code and they don’t have the code?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Every country has also some reasons why they have one system rather than another system and again it’s not a qualification, but it makes it very difficult to compare. So let me say that I would actually rather refrain from comparing.
RFE/RL: And the philosophical question. Do you think these observation missions are a useful exercise? As a diplomat, as a citizen of the European Union, taking aside that you are head of this mission…
Ambassador Tagliavini: Let me first clarify one thing – I am a Swiss citizen. And unfortunately for myself, we are not a member of the European Union.
RFE/RL: Exactly, yes.
Ambassador Tagliavini: As a Swiss citizen and as a citizen I think of an old and confirmed democracy I am really a fervent adherent of election observation missions. I think every country in the OSCE, among the OSCE states should have an election observation mission, and I am very glad that we have more and more election observation missions also in so-called Western European countries. My country, Switzerland, for example, had an election observation mission in 2011 and I can tell you that the reaction of our population was, ‘Why should we have an election observation mission? We have perfect elections. Nobody has any mistrust in the electoral system.’ But it was an excellent opportunity to show to some of the interlocutors in Switzerland that every country has a need of improvement of the democracy. What was the problem in Switzerland? In Switzerland parties do not have to disclose their finances for the campaign. And, indeed, there is one party in Switzerland that seems to use quite a lot of money for a policy that is not supported by many people, it is a bit racist, it is anti-immigrant, it is rather on the right side, not very progressive. So people were happy that the recommendation came from ODIHR: please, disclose your campaign finances. So I think that’s the explanation. I am really in favor. You don’t build a democracy in one day, but this is one element that can actually increase confidence of people in an electoral process.
RFE/RL: And as a follow-up question, Madame Ambassador. There is also one very important question related to this. And it sometimes causes confusion. Some people believe that you are here to give a final verdict to the election results and with your conclusion to say whether the elected official, in this case president, is legitimate or not. So based on these assumptions sometimes you will hear criticism addressed to the OSCE/ODIHR that you are like shying away from saying whether these elections were good elections, the elected official is legitimate or not. What’s your answer to this criticism?
Ambassador Tagliavini: Luckily, we are not a tribunal. We are a very technical organization, I would say, in that sense. There are the so-called Copenhagen commitments, international standards, there is a legal framework in every country, and we only measure whether these standards have been reached – and this is actually quite technical – we assess compliance. So we don’t really come up with a political statement which would be legitimizing elections. That’s up to the country to assess whether the elections were legitimate or not. We are just providing the framework or the analysis and the assessment of what we see in an election. So it would be too much to expect from ODIHR to come up with a verdict. And it would also make our task much more difficult because, of course, countries would think twice whether to invite us if we are not legitimizing certain elections. We actually do a technical job.
RFE/RL: And my final question. Is it your first time in Armenia?
Ambassador Tagliavini: No, I think I was here in quite important time. My first time was sometimes in 1975-76. I was a student and a tourist guide with Swiss tourists through the Soviet Union and I came also to Armenia. And then the second time was an important time – I think Switzerland was the country which very quickly recognized Armenia and I was then number two in the Swiss embassy in Moscow and with my ambassador we recommended to our government to immediately take up diplomatic relations. So I came here at the beginning of January 1992, we took up diplomatic relations with then Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian and President Levon Ter-Petrosian. So the history is… But since then I must say I haven’t been very often to Armenia and it’s a very interesting period to be in a country when the country has elections.
RFE/RL: Thank you for the interview.
Ambassador Tagliavini: Thank you.