By Ruben Meloyan and Emil Danielyan
The European Union’s special representative to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, reaffirmed on Thursday his optimism regarding the conduct of Armenia’s upcoming presidential election which he said is likely to be free and fair.
Semneby’s upbeat forecast contrasted with serious concerns about the pre-election situation in the country expressed by senior officials from another pan-European organization, the Council of Europe. They said the Armenian electronic media, overwhelmingly controlled by the government, are highly tendentious in their coverage of the intensifying presidential race.
“I have, in general, a positive feeling about the atmosphere before the elections,” Semneby told RFE/RL in an interview. “We have a large field of strong candidates with clear profiles, programs and ideas, and that’s very good for the development of Armenian democracy.”
“The signs are that this will be an election that will be free and fair,” he said.
Semneby explained that his optimism stems, in large measure, from the Armenian authorities’ handling of last May’s parliamentary elections which Western observers described as largely democratic. “Armenia has received quite a lot of good will as a result of the parliamentary elections,” he said. “Armenia has, in many ways, set the standard after the countries in the South Caucasus have been invited to the European Neighborhood Program.”
The Armenian opposition strongly disagrees with the EU’s positive assessment of the May elections, saying that they were as fraudulent as the previous ones. Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, widely seen as the main opposition presidential candidate, alleged last month that “vote falsifications were disguised with such ingenuity that no observer could detect them.” Ter-Petrosian said that Western monitoring of the February election could therefore prove “meaningless.”
The lack of opposition trust in the integrity of the electoral process was noted by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who visited Yerevan earlier this month to prepare for the dispatch of an OSCE observer mission to the country. The officials representing the OSCE’s Warsaw-based vote-monitoring arm, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, met with senior government officials and leaders of the main Armenian parties.
“Different fraud schemes suggestive of multiple voting or vote buying have been alleged, such as printing of large numbers of fake passports or the usage of different color pens to mark the ballots,” they said in a report released this week. “Some interlocutors expressed their suspicions that vote-buying will take place on a large scale. However, no detailed information or supporting documentation were provided to support such claims.”
Ter-Petrosian and other opposition candidates also complain about a lack of access to the government-controlled electronic media, the number one source of news for Armenians. Giving weight to those complaints, the Yerevan Press Club, an independent media watchdog, has faulted Armenia’s main TV and radio stations for aggressively promoting Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, President Robert Kocharian’s preferred successor. The YPC has also criticized them for displaying “unprecedented” bias against Ter-Petrosian.
Terry Davis, the Council of Europe secretary general, said on Monday that he told Sarkisian in Strasbourg last week that he is “very concerned” about the Armenian election coverage. “As I was explaining to the prime minister of Armenia, it’s not the number of [media] references to him or to his political opponents that matters, it was the overwhelming analysis which showed that the comments were favorable to the prime minister and unfavorable for his opponents,” Davis told RFE/RL in New York. “And that’s wrong, that’s biased, and that’s what’s wrong in a democracy.”
“I think the situation, as it is analyzed today with the media in Armenia, does not meet the standards of the Council of Europe to a large extent,” he said, citing the results of YPC monitoring of the airwaves.
Davis’s concerns were echoed on Thursday by a representative of a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly committee monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its membership obligations to the Strasbourg-based organization. Georges Colobmier, who visited Yerevan on a fact-finding trip earlier this month, likewise cited the YPC monitoring in complaining about “excessive coverage of the Prime Minister.” “I insisted that a more balanced access to the public television should be guaranteed for all 9 presidential candidates,” Colombier said in a report.
Sarkisian dismissed such statements as he received Semneby in Yerevan on Wednesday. The Armenian government’s press service quoted him saying that the source of information cited by Davis is “not objective” and suggesting that the Armenian broadcasters be monitored instead by an “authoritative international organization.”
Semneby, who again met Ter-Petrosian on Wednesday, said the EU will follow the media coverage with “great interest” and that the authorities should pay “special attention” to the issue. “It’s obviously an issue that needs to be taken into account and seriously considered,” the EU envoy said.
In his report, Colombier described Ter-Petrosian as Sarkisian’s main challenger who “seems to have actually caused an increasing attention to the presidential elections which would have otherwise been considered as won in advance” by the Armenian premier. He criticized the government for resorting to “intimidation and occasionally violence” against Ter-Petrosian supporters.
The PACE rapporteur also deplored a continuing lack of judicial independence in Armenia and said he heard numerous complaints that the situation with human rights in the country has deteriorated this year. “Police brutality seems to have risen during the year as confirmed both by the Human Rights Defender in Armenia and the [Council of Europe] Commissioner for Human Rights,” he said. “Ill-treatment is widely used in particular as a means to obtain confessions.”
(Photolur photo: Peter Semneby.)