By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
The Council of Europe signaled a toughening of its policy towards official Yerevan on Monday when its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) threatened to strip its Armenian delegation of voting rights due to serious irregularities reported during the recent parliamentary elections.
In a resolution, the PACE reaffirmed strong criticism of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the May 25 elections voiced by a multinational team of its lawmakers who monitored them jointly with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The resolution says that the pan-European assembly will “consider challenging the ratification of credentials of the new Armenian delegation given the scope and gravity of irregularities, in particular, during the vote count.”
The warning concerns four deputies appointed by the leadership of the new parliament in Yerevan to fill Armenia’s four seats in the PACE. Among them is Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance which accuses the authorities of falsifying the vote results. Artarutyun, which also claims that Demirchian was the rightful winner of this year’s presidential ballot, has repeatedly called for tougher European action against the Armenian leadership. But it remains to be seen whether it will back the punitive measure threatened by the PACE.
The new parliamentary delegation is to start representing Armenia at the assembly’s autumn session this September. Two Armenian lawmakers attending its ongoing summer session, Armen Rustamian and Artashes Geghamian, are using the previous parliament’s mandate.
“The election campaign and vote showed an improvement over the last Presidential elections,” the PACE resolution says. “Unfortunately the vote count showed the same pattern of irregularities, if not on a greater scale, (ballot box stuffing, protocol falsification, intimidation of proxies and observers) as observed during the last Presidential elections. These elections therefore still fall short of internationally accepted democratic standards.”
Armenia’s Central Election Commission and the winner of the legislative polls, the Republican Party of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, admit that there were vote irregularities, but insist that those were not serious enough to affect the outcome of the elections.
The resolution further stresses that Armenia will remain under the regime of permanent PACE monitoring until it holds presidential and parliamentary elections “in line with internationally accepted democratic standards.”
The monitoring process has so far focused on the fulfillment of specific obligations assumed by the country when it joined the Council of Europe in January 2001. Holding free and fair elections were not among them. Instead, Yerevan pledged to strengthen safeguards against human rights abuses and abolish the death penalty completely and unconditionally.
The new Armenian Criminal Code, enacted in April, formally outlaws capital punishment for all crimes except the October 1999 massacre in the parliament. The Strasbourg-based organization has rejected the exception as unacceptable, with the PACE threatening last September to suspend Armenia’s membership if the clause is not removed by June 2003.
The sensitive issue was not included on the agenda of its current summer session, however. Armenian officials announced earlier this month that the Council of Europe has agreed to their request to extend the deadline to the end of this year.