The Armenian authorities claim to have taken a further step toward meeting their membership commitments to the Council of Europe with the May 20 passage of amendments to the country’s controversial laws on elections and rallies. President Robert Kocharian’s leading political allies say the move will guarantee freedom of assembly and seriously complicate chronic electoral fraud, the principal source of political tension in Armenia.
However, their political opponents and leading civic groups have dismissed the amendments as insignificant and misleading. Indeed, they allow the ruling regime, which has failed to hold a single free and fair election, to continue to exercise full control over all electoral processes and to restrict anti-government demonstrations.
Besides, the regime has never quite complied with the existing laws that declare vote rigging to be a serious crime and that guarantee Armenians’ basic human and civil rights. This appears to be the reason why the Council of Europe’s and other pan-European structures’ emphasis on legislative reform in Armenia has yielded few tangible results in terms of the democratization of its deeply flawed political system.
On paper, the amended law on public gatherings makes it somewhat easier for opposition groups to stage demonstrations. The authorities can now stop or disperse such protests only if they result in “violations of the law” and feature calls for a “violent overthrow” of the government. The legislation does not specify what those violations could be. It also retained a highly controversial clause whereby no rallies can be held within a 150-meter radius of the presidential palace in Yerevan and other “strategic” facilities such as the nuclear power plant at Metsamor.
The law in question was enacted in May 2004 at the height of an opposition campaign of anti-Kocharian demonstrations. Legal experts from the Council of Europe and the OSCE concluded afterward that it does not meet European standards for freedom of assembly. They also criticized Armenia’s Electoral Code for not envisaging sufficient safeguards against vote irregularities.
The amendments to the code give more rights to proxies of election candidates on polling days and should enable the police to sort out Armenia’s notoriously inaccurate vote registers. More importantly, it allows Kocharian to appoint only one member of each electoral commission.
Kocharian until now named three of the nine members of the country’s Central Election Commission and its territorial divisions. The other commission seats are controlled by the six parties and blocs represented in parliament. Only two of them are in opposition to Kocharian.
The two vacant commission seats will now be given to another pro-presidential parliamentary faction and Armenia’s Court of Appeals, all of whose members were appointed by Kocharian. The Armenian leader and his allies will thus retain their overwhelming control of the bodies handling elections at various levels.
Not surprisingly, the opposition is not happy with the legislative changes. They were also criticized on May 24 by the Partnership for Open Society, a coalition of more than three dozen local non-governmental organizations advocating political reform. Its leaders claimed that some of the amendments would even facilitate fraud. One of amendments stipulates that ballot papers no longer have to be signed by at least three members of a precinct commission in order to be considered valid.
The NGOs also slammed Council of Europe experts for reportedly praising the amendments. They had already denounced the pan-European organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) for its October 2004 resolution that made a largely positive assessment of Yerevan’s human rights record just months after an unprecedented crackdown on the Armenian opposition.
The 46-nation assembly noted its “excellent cooperation” with the Armenian authorities, echoing statements by officials from the Council of Europe’s top governing body, the Committee of Ministers. One of them, Pietro Ago, declared during a February 2004 visit to Yerevan that the authorities “should be congratulated for their good actions” relating to political reform. The Italian diplomat pointed to the abolition of the death penalty in Armenia and to the passage of new laws on mass media, the human rights ombudsman, and alternative service.
The enactment of those laws was among the key conditions for Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001. However, the country has hardly become more democratic since then; it has even regressed in some areas. The Council of Europe membership did not prevent the authorities from scandalously closing A1+, the sole Armenian television channel not controlled by Kocharian, in April 2002. Ironically, they used one of the laws cited by Ago to pull the plug on the popular channel.
Furthermore, the Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2003 were again judged undemocratic by Western observers, and the U.S. State Department continues to describe the Kocharian administration’s human rights record as “poor.”
The Armenian authorities have repeatedly demonstrated that they can easily trample a law or constitutional clause if it threatens their grip on power. They have rejected the few Council of Europe recommendations that pose such a threat. The authorities, for example, have stubbornly resisted demands to scrap the Soviet-era practice of “administrative arrests,” which they have used to imprison hundreds of opposition activists and supporters. Nor have they agreed to significantly curb Kocharian’s sweeping powers as part of a planned reform of the Armenian constitution.
(RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 19, 24; February 6, 2004)