By Gayane Abrahamyan
When Armenians go to the polls on May 6 they may be doing more than electing a new parliament. The vote may also influence future ties with the European Union, perhaps Armenia’s most important economic partner.
On April 18, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that stressed that the Armenian parliamentary vote’s “proper conduct, in accordance with international and European standards, will be of the utmost importance for the development of EU-Armenia relations.” Later in April, the head of the EU Delegation to Armenia, Ambassador Trajan Hristea, reiterated that the elections “are to become the basis for the development of our cooperation.” In connection with those statements, European institutions pledged heightened scrutiny of the vote, the first national poll since the 2008 bloodshed following a controversial presidential election.
If monitors give Yerevan a poor grade on the conduct of the legislative vote, Armenia’s participation in European Union assistance projects could be in jeopardy. The Armenian government faced a similar test in the 2008 presidential elections, which ended in police clashes with opposition protesters that led to the deaths of 10 people. Armenia subsequently lost a $60 million grant it had expected to receive from the US government’s Millennium Challenge economic development program.
The stakes with the EU are higher. The European Union currently accounts for 32 percent of Armenia’s trade turnover ($1.5 billion), edging out Russia by 12 percentage points. Three years ago, Armenia entered the Eastern Partnership, a conduit for closer ties between the EU and six post-Soviet countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine); in 2010, Yerevan started negotiations with the EU on an Association Agreement, which would provide for an expanded cooperation framework. Not only are streamlined visa requirements up for negotiation, but also talks about a free trade area which could eventually give Armenian products easier access to the EU’s 500-million-person-strong market.
Fear of losing that opportunity – Armenia faces an unofficial unemployment rate well into the double digits – is prompting Armenia’s government to loudly express the intent to hold clean elections. But some observers — including Harutiun Hambardzumian, the head of Armenia’s largest election observer organization, The Choice Is Yours – believe authorities are just striving to be more sophisticated in the way they manipulate the voting results. “Because they fear the international community, election fraud has now been ‘upgraded,’ and is done covertly,” Hambardzumian claimed.
To substantiate his claim, Hambardzumian pointed out that voter lists still feature non-existent buildings and mega-sized apartments with apparent room for 100-plus voters. The voter list for Yerevan district N12/14, for example, reported that 147 voters had been registered at an address that turned out to house the Armenian-Belarusian Trade Center. In a Yerevan suburb, The Choice Is Yours found that 545 voters had been registered “as residing in a half-finished, illegal structure,” he added.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, the special co-coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission to Armenia noted that such incidents have been noted. At the same time, the official stated that “nobody can check everything.”
“It is true that cheaters have become … more sophisticated and what is very important is to analyze to what extent these problems have influence on the final result of the voting,” said François-Xavier de Donnea, a Belgian parliamentarian who heads Belgium’s delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
In campaign speeches for his governing Republican Party of Armenia, President Serzh Sargsyan has underlined that “everything will be done for running the best elections,” because “we want to form a government in which there wouldn’t be a lack of trust.”
A senior opposition party representative, though, charged that “such speeches are mostly addressed to the international community, as locals are well aware of what’s going on inside” Armenia. “It’s important for the observers not to believe those populist declarations,” added Vladimir Karapetian, a foreign affairs advisor for the main opposition movement, the Armenian National Congress.
De Donnea stressed that the OSCE’s long-term observers are trying to look beneath the surface, but conceded that “it is true that foreign observers can’t see some things, which only domestic observers can notice, because of the language, the culture.” That limitation makes the combined efforts of domestic and foreign observers “very important,” he added.
Many local election observers, however, feel hesitant, citing fear that a recent change to the election code could expose them to defamation lawsuits if they are outspoken in their criticism of the elections’ conduct. The government insists that such fears are misplaced.
Despite such concerns, de Donnea noted that some areas of progress do exist – more neutral election coverage in mass media, equal broadcast time for parties and access to facilities for campaigns. Such improvements deserve to be publicized in order to increase public trust in the electoral process, de Donnea suggested.
Human rights activist Artur Sakunts, director of the Helsini Citizen Assembly’s Vanadzor office, alleged that the government has only created an appearance of improvements. Behind the scenes, officials are employing “more covert violations” that are “hard to control” in order to tilt the playing field toward government-preferred parties and candidates.
Many Armenians joke that even the bribes “have improved.” During the 2007 parliamentary elections, for instance, multi-millionaire Gagik Tsarukian, chairperson of the Prosperous Armenia Party, now a government coalition member, reportedly gave out potatoes to villagers; this time, he’s allegedly “donating” new tractors.
The OSCE/ODHIR second interim report stated that the tractors have appeared in six of Armenia’s 11 provinces since the election campaign began on April 8. Party representatives explained this by saying that the distribution of new tractors is part of the party’s “business plan.” Many Armenian voters still look primarily to the international community to sound the alarm about such irregularities, but one senior European election observer argued that the onus lies on Armenians themselves.
“The entire burden of responsibility in case the elections are not conducted properly should not be put on non-Armenians,” Baroness Emma Nicholson, the British head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe observer mission, told journalists on April 13. “It is your nation’s issue.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.