The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) on Tuesday effectively validated the controversial removal of an outspoken opposition parliamentarian from the Armenian delegation in the Strasbourg-based body.
Zaruhi Postanjian of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party has represented Armenia in the PACE along with three other lawmakers affiliated with the ruling Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties as well as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian decided earlier this month to replace Postanjian by a pro-government deputy on the grounds that Dashnaktsutyun left the country’s governing coalition in April and is now in opposition to President Serzh Sarkisian. Abrahamian argued that the presence of two opposition deputies in the delegation does not reflect the balance of forces in the National Assembly.
Postanjian rejected the explanation, saying that the authorities are simply keen to prevent more criticism of their policies in the Council of Europe. She claimed that Dashnaktsutyun mainly disagrees with the Sarkisian administration’s foreign policy and is therefore not a genuine opposition force.
Despite being excluded from the delegation, Postanjian traveled to Strasbourg to attend the PACE’s winter session that began its work on Monday. Her allegations of serious procedural violations in the change of the delegation make-up were swiftly picked up by the European People’s Party (EPP), one of the largest PACE factions.
“On behalf of the EPP group, I wish to challenge the credentials of the Armenian delegation,” Christos Pourgourides, a PACE member from Cyprus, declared at the start of the session. “We have received information that the Armenian parliament manipulated the internal rules in order to exclude a member from our group.”
In accordance with the PACE statutes, the matter was immediately referred to the assembly’s Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs. The committee discussed it and found no violations on the part of the Armenian parliament leadership on Tuesday. According to David Harutiunian, head of the Armenian delegation, the decision amounted to an automatic confirmation of the delegation’s credentials by the PACE.
Speaking to RFE/RL by phone, Harutiunian blamed the controversy on the PACE Monitoring Committee’s failure to hold a planned discussion of Armenia’s compliance with PACE resolutions on the lingering fallout from the March 2008 unrest in Yerevan. He said the committee may take up the issue on Wednesday.
The delay appears to have further reduced chances of its inclusion on the agenda of the weeklong PACE session. Pro-government members of the Armenian delegation see no need for such a debate, saying that the Armenian authorities have mostly complied with the resolutions urging an independent inquiry into the delay unrest and the release of opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.”
The main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) claimed the opposite in a 7-page note sent to the Monitoring Committee. It said the authorities are still holding 15 “political prisoners” and failed to conduct an “impartial and credible” investigation into the post-election violence that left ten people dead. The HAK cited the dissolution of a bipartisan body formed for that purpose in late 2008.
“We think that the events of March 1  have still not been solved,” Levon Zurabian, a leading member of the opposition alliance, told RFE/RL on Tuesday. “We continue to insist that the only way to officially uncover the truth about those events is to set up an authorized body in which the authorities and the opposition would be equally represented and which should also comprise international experts.”
Zurabian also reiterated the HAKs’ condemnation of Postanjian’s removal from the PACE. “This is yet another dirty trick with which the authorities are trying to close channels of delivering the truth from Armenia to Strasbourg,” he charged.
Both the HAK and Zharangutyun have repeatedly accused the Council of Europe of being too lenient towards the Armenian authorities. Zurabian claimed last month that the organization has become more indifferent to human rights abuses in Armenia lately because of President Serzh Sarkisian’s Western-backed policies on Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Some [foreign] diplomats have directly told us about that,” Zurabian told RFE/RL on December 18. “They have said that since dramatic processes are going on Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, it wouldn’t be quite productive to distract the Armenian leadership with other issues.”