By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) began on Wednesday a two-day visit to Armenia aimed at assessing preparations for next month’s parliamentary elections that will be closely watched by the Strasbourg-based organization.
The PACE warned the Armenian authorities late last month that the May 25 polls should mark a serious improvement over the recent presidential election strongly criticized by European observers. The Council of Europe secretary general, Walter Schwimmer, went farther, warning that another fraudulent vote would spell a political “disaster” for Armenia fraught with a risk of international sanctions.
However, the head of the PACE delegation, Lord Russell-Johnston of Britain, would not be drawn on the possibility of sanctions against official Yerevan. “I don’t want to anticipate that,” he told RFE/RL in Yerevan. “Let’s hope that that problem will not arise.”
Russell-Johnston and four other PACE lawmakers discussed the issue with President Robert Kocharian who, according to his press service, thanked the Council of Europe for its interest in the Armenian elections. They also met with the leadership of the Armenian parliament, including speaker Armen Khachatrian and the chairman of its foreign relations committee, Hovannes Hovannisian.
“They say that if the parliamentary elections don’t meet democratic standards, the Council of Europe will set in motion its punitive mechanisms,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL. “We just can’t fail to free and fair elections.”
In a move reflecting the seriousness of its intentions, the PACE has decided to send a much larger group of observers to Armenia for the parliamentary elections. Its monitoring mission, headed by Russell-Johnston, numbered only several members during the presidential election. According to Hovannisian, at least 30 PACE members will be on hand this time around.
Campaigning for the parliamentary polls officially got underway on Monday, with 21 parties and political blocs and hundreds of independent candidates vying for 131 seats in the National Assembly.