EU Envoy Remains Upbeat On Armenia Poll Conduct

EU ENVOY REMAINS UPBEAT ON ARMENIA POLL CONDUCT
By Ruben Meloyan and Emil Danielyan

Radio Liberty, Czech Republic
Dec 20 2007

The European Union’s special representative to the South Caucasus,
Peter Semneby, reaffirmed on Thursday his optimism regarding the
conduct of Armenia’s upcoming presidential election which he said is
likely to be free and fair.

Semneby’s upbeat forecast contrasted with serious concerns about the
pre-election situation in the country expressed by senior officials
from another pan-European organization, the Council of Europe. They
said the Armenian electronic media, overwhelmingly controlled by
the government, are highly tendentious in their coverage of the
intensifying presidential race.

"I have, in general, a positive feeling about the atmosphere before
the elections," Semneby told RFE/RL in an interview. "We have a large
field of strong candidates with clear profiles, programs and ideas,
and that’s very good for the development of Armenian democracy."

"The signs are that this will be an election that will be free and
fair," he said.

Semneby explained that his optimism stems, in large measure, from the
Armenian authorities’ handling of last May’s parliamentary elections
which Western observers described as largely democratic. "Armenia has
received quite a lot of good will as a result of the parliamentary
elections," he said. "Armenia has, in many ways, set the standard
after the countries in the South Caucasus have been invited to the
European Neighborhood Program."

The Armenian opposition strongly disagrees with the EU’s positive
assessment of the May elections, saying that they were as fraudulent
as the previous ones. Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, widely
seen as the main opposition presidential candidate, alleged last month
that "vote falsifications were disguised with such ingenuity that no
observer could detect them." Ter-Petrosian said that Western monitoring
of the February election could therefore prove "meaningless."

The lack of opposition trust in the integrity of the electoral
process was noted by representatives of the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who visited Yerevan earlier this
month to prepare for the dispatch of an OSCE observer mission to
the country. The officials representing the OSCE’s Warsaw-based
vote-monitoring arm, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human
Rights, met with senior government officials and leaders of the main
Armenian parties.

"Different fraud schemes suggestive of multiple voting or vote buying
have been alleged, such as printing of large numbers of fake passports
or the usage of different color pens to mark the ballots," they said
in a report released this week. "Some interlocutors expressed their
suspicions that vote-buying will take place on a large scale. However,
no detailed information or supporting documentation were provided to
support such claims."

Ter-Petrosian and other opposition candidates also complain about
a lack of access to the government-controlled electronic media,
the number one source of news for Armenians. Giving weight to those
complaints, the Yerevan Press Club, an independent media watchdog,
has faulted Armenia’s main TV and radio stations for aggressively
promoting Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, President Robert Kocharian’s
preferred successor. The YPC has also criticized them for displaying
"unprecedented" bias against Ter-Petrosian.

Terry Davis, the Council of Europe secretary general, said on
Monday that he told Sarkisian in Strasbourg last week that he is
"very concerned" about the Armenian election coverage. "As I was
explaining to the prime minister of Armenia, it’s not the number of
[media] references to him or to his political opponents that matters,
it was the overwhelming analysis which showed that the comments were
favorable to the prime minister and unfavorable for his opponents,"
Davis told RFE/RL in New York. "And that’s wrong, that’s biased,
and that’s what’s wrong in a democracy."

"I think the situation, as it is analyzed today with the media in
Armenia, does not meet the standards of the Council of Europe to
a large extent," he said, citing the results of YPC monitoring of
the airwaves.

Davis’s concerns were echoed on Thursday by a representative of a
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly committee monitoring Armenia’s
compliance with its membership obligations to the Strasbourg-based
organization. Georges Colobmier, who visited Yerevan on a fact-finding
trip earlier this month, likewise cited the YPC monitoring in
complaining about "excessive coverage of the Prime Minister." "I
insisted that a more balanced access to the public television should
be guaranteed for all 9 presidential candidates," Colombier said in
a report.

Sarkisian dismissed such statements as he received Semneby in Yerevan
on Wednesday. The Armenian government’s press service quoted him saying
that the source of information cited by Davis is "not objective" and
suggesting that the Armenian broadcasters be monitored instead by an
"authoritative international organization."

Semneby, who again met Ter-Petrosian on Wednesday, said the EU
will follow the media coverage with "great interest" and that
the authorities should pay "special attention" to the issue. "It’s
obviously an issue that needs to be taken into account and seriously
considered," the EU envoy said.

In his report, Colombier described Ter-Petrosian as Sarkisian’s
main challenger who "seems to have actually caused an increasing
attention to the presidential elections which would have otherwise been
considered as won in advance" by the Armenian premier. He criticized
the government for resorting to "intimidation and occasionally
violence" against Ter-Petrosian supporters.

The PACE rapporteur also deplored a continuing lack of judicial
independence in Armenia and said he heard numerous complaints that
the situation with human rights in the country has deteriorated
this year. "Police brutality seems to have risen during the year
as confirmed both by the Human Rights Defender in Armenia and the
[Council of Europe] Commissioner for Human Rights," he said.

"Ill-treatment is widely used in particular as a means to obtain
confessions."

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