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Armenia: PACE Hears Of Progress Domestically, But Also Of Voting Flaws, Lack Of Progress On Nagorno-Karabakh

The Council of Europe has presented a report on the progress made by Armenia in fulfilling its obligations to maintain democratic and human rights standards in the three years since it became a member. The report criticizes the Armenian government for widespread flaws in elections last year and for its failure to make progress in peace talks with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Strasbourg, 28 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia became a member of the Council of Europe three years ago. The council sets standards for members to follow in matters such as human rights, democratic standards, and political behavior. The Council of Europe monitors the behavior of its new members by sending out parliamentary deputies from member countries.

Two such investigators, called rapporteurs -- Jerzy Jaskierna from Poland and Rene Andre from France -- were sent to Armenia. Yesterday, Jaskierna presented their report before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which is being held this week in the French city of Strasbourg.

Jaskierna said some progress has been made. "Surely, there is progress in Armenia. There is no doubt about it," he said. "The breakthrough point occurred in September 2003. Until that point, several things had not yet been done because during the preparation for the parliamentarian and presidential elections [eds: in May and March 2003, respectively], and just after, it was very difficult to achieve progress because the political scene of Armenia was divided, and several obligations were not met."

He said one of the successes has been on the human rights front. He noted Armenia has complied with its promise to the Council of Europe to ban the death penalty, despite resistance from much of the population.

But Jaskierna said Armenian authorities have fallen far short of the council's standards for conducting elections. European election monitors criticized last year's presidential and parliamentary elections as being marred by violence and vote-rigging. "We are very sorry about the election in Armenia," Jaskierna said. "We are stressing the importance of free and fair elections and, unfortunately, the election -- presidential and parliamentary -- did not meet international standards. Also, we stress the necessity to conduct a thorough investigation into electoral fraud and put an end to the judicial impunity of those responsible for it by the end of 2004."

Jaskierna said one of the main reasons for allowing both Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan to become members of the Council of Europe was to encourage an end to hostilities between the two countries, which resulted in a war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The region had an Armenian majority but was in Azerbaijani territory. A vicious war left tens of thousands dead and produced large numbers of refugees, mainly Azerbaijanis driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Jaskierna said Armenia has contributed little to a negotiated settlement of the territorial dispute and that tensions remain dangerously high between the two countries. "When we take Armenia and Azerbaijan into the Council of Europe, we hoped that that will help to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is one of the major conflicts in Europe."

Jaskierna also said Armenian authorities are violating their obligations to allow freedom of the press and pointed particularly at the treatment of Armenian television station A1+. The station alleges it has been denied a broadcasting license because its political reports offended the authorities.

Russell Johnson is the British member of PACE who led the council's observer teams during the two elections in Armenia last year. Johnson backed the rapporteurs' conclusion that the elections were rigged. He said ordinary Armenians are eager to take part in an honest, democratic process but have been denied that opportunity by the government:

"As the member who led the observation team for the presidential and parliamentary elections in March and May of last year and can confirm that both we and [the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] and [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] were profoundly disappointed, especially by the parliamentary elections, which showed a regression from the presidential [election]. Fraud and irregularity took place in the counting. There was also a failure to pursue those who were responsible," Johnson said.

The spokesman for the European Democratic Group of deputies within PACE, Roman Zwarych, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, was one of the speakers concerned at the lack of progress to find a peace settlement by Armenia and Azerbaijan. He said: "The group noted that both countries acceded to the council concurrently and both countries at that time, the same time, during their accession, jointly undertook to settle by peaceful means their border dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, which in the past has unfortunately led to armed conflict. It was with bitter disappointment that members of the group learned that this problem is far from resolved, which in turn places in doubt the credulity of the Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities when entering into international commitments."

Azerbaijani PACE member Bakhtiar Aliyev said refugees of both Armenian and Azerbaijani nationality are being denied their human rights and living in misery because of the intractability of the Armenian authorities. He especially accused Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, whom he said had publicly proclaimed that Armenia would not be swayed by appeals from international bodies.

Armenian PACE member Shovraz Kocharian denied that his country is infringing human rights. He said Azerbaijanis had not been forcibly expelled and were not mistreated. He said the conflict started because of Azerbaijani aggression against his country. But he did blame Armenian authorities for straying from the path of democracy -- something he said has made peace negotiations difficult.

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