The administration of President Robert Kocharian has enacted its controversial constitutional amendments following a November 27 referendum that raised Armenia’s post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud to new heights. Its deeply flawed handling of the vote is also a serious setback for the West’s cautious efforts to promote the country’s democratization and European integration.
According to the government-controlled Central Election Commission (CEC), almost two-thirds of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters took part in the referendum and over 93% of them voted for the proposed changes. The reported turnout was astonishingly high, considering widespread public apathy toward Kocharian’s constitutional reform and especially the situation in many polling stations on voting day. Never before have they looked so deserted.
Just how the authorities managed to ensure the desired outcome is still not quite clear, but few local journalists and observers doubt that there has been massive vote rigging. On November 29 Armenia’s largest election-monitoring organization, called It’s Your Choice (IYC), issued a damning indictment of the referendum’s conduct. “Serious violations of the electoral process, illegal voting and especially ballot-box stuffing registered on November 27 … do not allow us to recognize the referendum on amendments to Armenia’s constitution as democratic and meeting international standards,” reads a 12-page report based on the findings of some 4,000 IYC observers deployed across the country.
According to the group’s chairman, Harutiun Hambartsumian, ballot-box stuffing was even more widespread than during the 2003 Armenian presidential election, condemned as undemocratic by Western observers. The November 28 and November 29 editions of several Armenian newspapers looked like catalogues of various irregularities reported by their journalists and opposition activists. One of them, 168 Zham, described the scale of vote rigging as “unprecedented.” Another paper critical of the government, Iravunk, likened the referendum to Soviet-era “elections” that were largely ignored by the population.
Not surprisingly, the Armenian opposition, which called for a popular boycott of the vote, rejected the official results. The main opposition Justice alliance branded them a “crime against the Armenian people.” The referendum was also criticized by a small monitoring mission from the Council of Europe, an organization that has strongly endorsed the constitutional changes. In a preliminary report, the 14-member mission noted that in a large number of polling stations, “The extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions.”
The Armenian authorities, however, insist that the reported irregularities were not serious enough to affect the official referendum outcome. They emphasized the European observers’ statement that “in the majority of the polling stations visited the conduct of the poll was in compliance with international standards.” In a written address to the nation on November 29, Kocharian thanked Armenians for their “unequivocal and resolute” support for his Western-backed reform. “This is a great victory for the efforts to strengthen democracy and form civil society in Armenia,” he declared. A separate statement by the three parties represented in Kocharian’s government likewise claimed that the referendum has brought the country closer to “European standards.”
Such assurances ring hollow in the light of the enormous contrast between the official vote results and the striking lack of voters at polling stations. The ruling regime’s pre-referendum campaign could have hardly been more Soviet-style, with the television channels (all of them controlled by Kocharian) running “Yes” ads free of charge and refusing to sell airtime to the opposition. The Council of Europe and the European Union have yet to react to the less-than-European way in which the constitutional changes have been pushed through.
The Europeans and the United States have said all along that the amendments would foster Armenia’s democratization and European integration because they would somewhat curtail the disproportionately large powers enjoyed by the Armenian president. But critics insist that those are not significant enough, saying that the head of state would retain his tight grip on the military and the security apparatus as well as strong leverage against parliament and the courts. They also argue that the existing post-Soviet constitution, however flawed, does provide for free elections and human rights and that Kocharian’s regime has not quite respected those provisions.
And yet the West continues to emphasize the improvement of existing laws and adoption of new ones in its efforts to foster political reform in Armenia. That strategy has clearly failed to work so far, as evidenced by the apparently rigged referendum and the Armenian authorities’ increased reliance on the police and the former KGB. The U.S. State Department, according to a statement by its Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, “share[s] the regret” of the Council of Europe observers and would like the Armenian authorities to investigate “serious abuses and fraud” reported by them. The statement said Washington is “working closely” with Yerevan to help ensure the freedom and fairness of the next Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 2007 and 2008 respectively.
Meanwhile, on November 29 the Armenian opposition issued a 72-hour ultimatum to the authorities, calling on them to scrap the referendum results or face anti-government street protests. A coalition of two-dozen opposition parties has already rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan in recent days. They hope to use the referendum controversy for another attempt to replicate the democratic revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. But opposition leaders have failed to gather what they call a “critical mass” of protesters until now. It appears that most Armenians are cynical about more than just their rulers.
(Aravot, November 30; 168 Zham, November 29; Iravunk, November 29; RFE/RL Armenia Report, November 27-30; Statement by the Armenian president, November 29; Preliminary report by the Council of Europe observer mission, November 28)