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Opposition Links Passport Agency Official’s Change With Upcoming Referendum


Armenia -- Deputy Police Chief Anubagh Hambaryan (C) presents the newly appointed Chief of the Passport and Visa Department Mnatsakan Bichakhchian (L), 21 Oct, 2015

Armenia -- Deputy Police Chief Anubagh Hambaryan (C) presents the newly appointed Chief of the Passport and Visa Department Mnatsakan Bichakhchian (L), 21 Oct, 2015

Opposition groups in Armenia have voiced suspicions over an unexpected dismissal of a senior official in charge of voter lists just weeks before a constitutional referendum.

By an order of Armenian Police Chief Vladimir Gasparian, Misha Sardarian, who headed the Police’s Passport and Visa Department since June 2014, has been replaced by Colonel Mnatsakan Bichakhchian.

Since Serzh Sarkisian was first elected president in 2008, this is the sixth change of the agency’s head, and most of the changes were mainly done ahead of national elections.

Like in the previous case, this time the Armenian police, too, simply explained that “personnel changes as part of reforms routinely take place within the police system.”

Meanwhile, parliamentary leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) Levon Zurabian claimed that this change could be closely linked with the upcoming vote.

“As many as 650,000 people should say ‘yes’ for the referendum to take place. Perhaps this is a difficult task, and perhaps this change is connected with this problem,” he said.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, who also heads the ruling Republican Party of Armenia’s referendum campaign headquarters, chaired a meeting earlier this week discussing demographic data. As of January 1, 2015, just over 3 million people live in Armenia. As compared to the previous year, the number of Armenia’s population officially grew by 6,500 people.

The local opposition considers the figures to be inflated and has repeatedly claimed that the authorities use this to tamper with voter lists.

Since Armenian citizens abroad are not enabled to vote in elections, some in Armenia call for the application of Kyrgyzstan’s experience by indicating in the voter lists the names of those voters who do not permanently reside in Armenia.

“The voter lists are not published, but at least this can be done. Unfortunately, this problem does not get a solution,” said Varuzhan Hoktanian, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Center, an Armenian affiliate of Transparency International.

The Armenian opposition demands that the names of the citizens who do not permanently reside in Armenia be removed from the electoral roll, and that they should be enabled to go to the polls by additional lists.

“We have suggested that these 700,000 citizens who are outside Armenia today, but are included in the electoral roll be removed from it but without being deprived of the right to vote. We have proposed a mechanism by which any person who comes to Armenia to participate in the elections can go to the polls by additional lists,” the HAK’s Zurabian said.

Bichakhchian, the new head of the Passport and Visa Department, excludes that these proposals can be accepted.

According to experts, there is also another mechanism of verifying voter lists. The law that was passed in 2011 had a provision that Armenian citizens living abroad should inform the police through embassies about their new legal addresses. Otherwise, they could be subject to a fine. Three years after the passage of the law, however, the provision about the fine was removed, and thus was also removed the obligation of citizens to inform the authorities about their new legal addresses abroad.

Bichakhchian said that it was a citizen’s right to remain in the electoral roll or be removed from it. At the same time, he acknowledged that the fine of 3,000 drams (about $6) did not prove effective in making citizens report their legal addresses abroad.

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