The Council of Europe has joined the chorus of international praise for the Armenian authorities’ handling of last month’s presidential election strongly criticized by domestic opposition and civil society groups.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Strasbourg-based organization promoting democracy and human rights, has expressed confidence that President Serzh Sarkisian will carry on with what he described as democratic reforms after winning a second term in office.
“I am confident that you will pursue the ongoing process of reforms to which you and your country are already committed, with a view to securing its democratic stability and to ensuring full respect for the rule of law and for human rights in Armenia,” Jagland wrote in a February 27 congratulatory letter to Sarkisian.
“I can assure you that the Council of Europe is ready to support you in these endeavors,” added Norway’s former prime minister.
The letter reflected a generally positive assessment of the Armenian election by a Western-led monitoring mission mostly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The 300-strong mission comprised two dozen observers from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
Karin Woldseth, a Norwegian lawmaker who led the PACE observers, said the 47-nation assembly “fully agrees” with the mission’s preliminary conclusion that the February 18 vote was “generally well-administered and was characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms.” The PACE also shares the monitors’ concerns about the Sarkisian campaign’s misuse of administrative resources and government loyalists’ “undue interference” in the voting process, she said.
“As such the conduct of these elections showed progress over the previous presidential elections held in 2008. Of course the elections are not over and all aspects of the tabulation and complaints handling process will still have to be taken into account,” Woldseth told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in written comments.
Woldseth was among the European officials who presented the OSCE-led mission’s initial findings at a February 19 news conference in Yerevan, which was nearly disrupted by a group of young Armenian activists accusing the West of turning a blind to vote rigging. “Armenia is on the right track to fulfill its obligation as a new and democratic country in Europe,” she declared.
This view contrasted with concerns that were voiced by Woldseth and four other PACE members when they visited Yerevan in January to assess preparations for the presidential ballot. They said the decision by most of Armenia’s leading opposition forces not to field presidential candidates has resulted in public apathy. “The upcoming elections are already overshadowed by widespread indifference and distrust,” Woldseth said at the time.
The remarks prompted an angry rebuttal by Davit Harutiunian, the head of the Armenian parliamentary delegation in Strasbourg who was also Sarkisian’s deputy campaign manager. Harutiunian insisted that the upcoming election will be as competitive as the previous ones.
Woldseth clearly changed her view after election day. At the February 19 news conference, she openly disagreed with other European observers who lamented a lack of competition in the contest.
Armenia undertook to bring its political system into conformity with European standards and practices when it joined the Council of Europe over a decade ago. Its compliance with membership obligations has since been monitored by PACE committees periodically drafting relevant resolutions.
In recent years, Armenia’s dealings with the organization have centered on the consequences of the 2008 post-election violence in Yerevan that left ten people dead and led to mass arrests of opposition members. Despite passing several resolutions denouncing the crackdown, the PACE has faced growing criticism from the Armenian opposition frustrated with its perceived leniency towards the Sarkisian government.
The most recent resolution adopted by the Strasbourg in October 2011 stated that the Armenian authorities have essentially overcome the political fallout from the 2008 unrest. It pointed to the release in May 2011 of the last oppositionists remaining in jail and a renewed probe of the unrest deaths ordered by Sarkisian.
The opposition and the Armenian National Congress (HAK) in particular condemned that resolution, accusing the PACE leadership of siding with the Armenian government in its standoff with the opposition alliance led by Levon Ter-Petrosian. Senior HAK figures reiterated that condemnation when they met with John Prescott, one of the two main authors of the resolution, in Yerevan in January 2012.
Prescott faced harsher criticism from two other Armenian opposition groups after holding separate meetings with their leaders. The latter claimed that the former British deputy prime minister rudely dismissed their concerns about the freedom and fairness of the next Armenian elections.
Prescott and other Council of Europe representatives have always denied any pro-government bias. Pro-government politicians in Yerevan have likewise defended the PACE stance.
It is not yet clear if the PACE will discuss the political situation in Armenia at its next plenary session in April or later this year. Woldseth indicated that the country will remain under the assembly’s monitoring procedure for now despite the guarded praise of the election conduct. “Being on the right track does not mean that Armenia has already fully honored its commitments and obligations,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.