Leaders of the two opposition parties represented in Armenia’s parliament accused on Monday a top representative of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) of blatant pro-government bias after meeting him to discuss the political situation in the country.
Senior parliamentarians from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party said that John Prescott, a PACE co-rapporteur on Armenia, rudely brushed aside their concerns about the forthcoming parliamentary elections and human rights abuses.
Prescott arrived in Yerevan to discuss ongoing preparations for the elections scheduled for May and assess the Armenian authorities’ compliance with a PACE resolution adopted last October.
The resolution urged the authorities to hold “genuinely democratic parliamentary elections,” reform the law-enforcement and judicial systems and create a “pluralist media environment.” It said this is essential for preventing a repeat of the deadly 2008 street violence in Yerevan.
Prescott, who served as Britain’s deputy prime minister from 1997-2007, was due to travel to Armenia together with Axel Fischer, the other PACE co-rapporteur. But Fischer cancelled trip at the last minute, citing health reasons.
The British parliamentarian began the fact-finding visit with a meeting with members of the Armenian parliamentary delegation at the PACE. One of them, Dashnaktsutyun’s Armen Rustamian, presented the Armenian opposition’s unanimous view that large-vote rigging will be more difficult if the elections are held only on the party-list basis.
“For some reason, my arguments angered Mr. Prescott and I couldn’t understand why,” Rustamian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The debate between us heated up a little at that point.”
“I couldn’t understand why he reacted so emotionally and angrily. Naturally I countered that,” he said.
Prescott’s ensuing meeting with Zharangutyun’s parliamentary faction was also apparently tense. Stepan Safarian, a faction member, said he promised to communicate the opposition demands for electoral reform to the Strasbourg assembly. But Safarian said Prescott refused to discuss Zharangutyun concerns about human rights abuses allegedly committed by Armenian law-enforcement bodies and their controversial criminal investigation into the 2008 unrest.
“He had no desire to listen to us,” Zaruhi Postanjian, another Zharangutyun deputy, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “He said his mission is to document what is going on right now.”
“When you present facts or express an opinion and your interlocutor bangs the table with his fist in response that means he is biased,” Postanjian said. “He did not want to hear evidence from us because he would have to evaluate that evidence in his report.”
Rustamian, for his part, claimed that Prescott may have secretly promised to assist the Armenian authorities in blocking the voting reform favored by the opposition. “Prescott wants to be a tool in their hands,” charged the normally reserved Dashnaktsutyun leader.
Prescott refused to comment when approached by an RFE/RL correspondent in the parliament.
The PACE representative was due to meet later in the day with leaders of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), a more radical opposition group that has been highly critical of the Council of Europe. He will meet with President Serzh Sarkisian, parliament speaker Samvel Nikoyan and Tigran Mukuchian, chairman of the Central Election Commission, on Tuesday.
Prescott also agreed to schedule an unplanned meeting with relatives of opposition protesters killed in the March 2008 clashes with security forces. They will likely complain about the results of a fresh inquiry into the unrest that were announced by Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) late last month.
The SIS reaffirmed its earlier claims that that the violence was sparked by opposition “rioters” and that security forces were therefore right to open fire on them. The HAK and Zharangutyun strongly condemned that conclusion. They also criticized the PACE for stating in its October resolution that “the chapter on the March 2008 events can finally be considered closed for the Assembly.”
“The [unrest] issue is no longer on the party’s agenda,” Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Monday.
Sahakian also spoke of “positive work” done by the authorities ahead of the elections. “I don’t think that our views are not shared by the PACE co-rapporteurs,” he said.