The United States and the European Union have joined Western election observers in praising the conduct of Armenia's weekend parliamentary elections, which were controversially swept by political allies of President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Analysts and civil society activists say that the development will give the Armenian leaders more ammunition to dismiss allegations of vote rigging made by their demoralized opponents, local media, and civic groups.
The May 12 elections were judged largely democratic by some 400 observers mostly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The OSCE-led monitoring mission also comprised parliamentarians from the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe. In a preliminary report released in Yerevan on May 13, the mission described the vote as a significant improvement over previous Armenian elections tainted by serious fraud. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The EU welcomed the observers' findings a few hours later. Germany, which currently holds the bloc's rotating presidency, said in a statement that the elections were "on the whole, conducted fairly, freely and largely in accordance with the international commitments which Armenia had entered into." In a separate statement, the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, congratulated "the people of Armenia on the improvements in the conduct of the parliamentary elections."
Both Germany and Solana indicated that Armenia will now be able to forge closer links with the EU under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) framework. EU officials had for months been warning that a recently negotiated set of related initiatives could be put on hold in the event of fresh electoral fraud.
"This is good news for EU-Armenia relations, in particular as they were the first elections after Armenia and the EU agreed last year on a wide-reaching Action Plan," Solana said.
The United States was more cautious in praising the Armenian authorities' handling of the election. "Our judgment so far is that this election was an improvement toward international standards," read a statement issued by the US embassy in Yerevan on May 15. The statement noted that long-term OSCE observers will continue to analyze the official vote results and might still detect more serious irregularities. "Part of the election process is a careful consideration of all issues raised in connection with the election, including several serious allegations of fraud or intimidation which may have affected the outcome of some of the races," the embassy said.
Even so, the US reaction was markedly different from Washington's strong criticism of the last Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections in 2003. Armenian observers believe Yerevan is now well placed to receive the first major installment of $236 million in additional US economic assistance from the Millenium Challenge Account (MCA) program.
"Armenia's leaders have never enjoyed such positive post-election treatment by the international community before," said Tevan Poghosian, director of the International Center for Human Development, a Yerevan-based private think-tank.
"Assuming that the OSCE's final election report will mirror their preliminary findings, Armenia's image abroad will improve considerably," agreed Levon Zurabian, an independent political scientist. "The authorities will be able to act with more confidence both in the international arena and at home."
Indeed, Western criticisms of the past Armenian elections gave the Armenian opposition a significant argument to challenge the legitimacy of Kocharian's almost decade-long rule. The OSCE's latest election verdict will enable Kocharian and his heir apparent, Prime Minister Sarkisian, to claim the moral high ground with the opposition over election results giving three pro-government parties overwhelming control of Armenia's new parliament. Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), the official election winner, alone will control at least 65 seats in the 131-member National Assembly. Another 40 other seats will be held by two other parties loyal to President Kocharian, Prosperous Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The legislative elections were widely seen as the rehearsal for next year's presidential vote, in which Prime Minister Sarkisian is expected to run. Despite the vote's positive assessment by the West, few Armenian analysts and civil society representatives consider it democratic. "There seem to have been no serious incidents in polling stations during both voting and counting of ballots, which is undoubtedly a positive phenomenon," the Yerevan daily Aravot said in an editorial. "But even to say that the elections moved a little closer to European standards would be a mockery of those standards."
At a May 14 press conference, civil society leaders echoed that frustration. "If this is an international standard, we can honestly say we don't need these international standards," commented Boris Navashardian, president of the Yerevan Press Club. "The election is not election day only," added Larisa Minasyan, executive director of the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation Armenia. "We're talking about the whole process." [Both the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation Armenia and EurasiaNet.org operate under the auspices of the Open Society Institute].
Virtually all major opposition parties and media critical of the government claim that the outcome of the poll was essentially decided by massive vote buying by the RPA and Prosperous Armenia. Throughout voting day there were numerous reports of busloads of presumably bribed voters transported to polling stations in Yerevan and other parts of the country. Boris Frlec, head of the ODIHR mission, said his observers also witnessed the busing.
"Our observers have reported a number of cases where vote buying on election day could be indicated, but very difficult to prove," Frlec told journalists on May 13. "There were groups of people who were waiting in lines, there were groups of people seen with some money and so on. But we could include in our report only things that were seen and actually proven."
In the months preceding the vote, the Armenian press had reported on the widespread collection of voters' passport data by local government officials and RPA and Prosperous Armenia activists. Representatives of the two parties also reportedly visited or telephoned households across the country to ascertain for whom they planned to vote. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some opposition leaders now say that was aimed at clarifying the names of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who live and work abroad but remain listed in voter registries. They allege that the authorities handed out a comparable number of fake passports to bribed voters who also cast ballots in place of the absent citizens.
"We have grounds to assert that there were mobile voting groups of people, and each member of those groups had about 10 passports bearing their pictures but [printed with] the names of other people," Nikol Pashinian, a leader of the radical Impeachment bloc, charged at a May 13 opposition rally in Yerevan.
In response, the police promptly laughed off the allegations, questioning the opposition member's sanity. Pashinian has, in turn, called for a selective verification of official documents which voters had to sign before casting ballots.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst. Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor, contributed reporting to this article.