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Armenia: OSCE Says Ballot Marred By Violence And Vote-Rigging

European monitors gave Armenia low marks in March when President Robert Kocharian was reelected amid allegations of widespread vote-tampering. As RFE/RL reports, observers say yesterday's parliamentary elections were not much better.

Prague, 26 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European election monitors are criticizing the Armenian parliamentary elections as marred by violence and vote-rigging.

Robert Barry, ambassador to Armenia for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says the overall campaign still noted a slight improvement over March's presidential ballot. He announced the preliminary findings of observers from the Council of Europe and the OSCE at a press conference today in Yerevan.

"They represent an improvement in performance of the elections -- clearly -- over the presidential elections [of March 2003]. However, they still fall short of international standards. So I think you can say it is a step in the right direction. But they aren't there yet," Barry says.

A statement from the European monitors elaborated, saying the improvements were seen with regard to the freedom and fairness of the election campaign and media coverage.

But the statement criticized what independent observers called the "falsification of results, intimidation of observers, and violations of the secrecy of the ballot during military voting."

Preliminary results released today by Armenia's Central Election Commission suggest that several parties loyal to President Robert Kocharian are on course to collectively win a majority of seats in the legislature.

That result has surprised independent pollsters in Yerevan whose opinion surveys shortly before the ballot suggested that the unified opposition Justice bloc had much stronger popular backing across Armenia than the parties supporting Kocharian.

Justice leader Stepan Zakarian claimed last night after voting had finished that the only way his bloc would fail to win a majority of seats in the parliament would be through vote-rigging.

Zakarian told RFE/RL that election monitors from his opposition bloc had reported many incidents of alleged ballot box manipulation.

"The cases of voting irregularities that we know about, in fact, involved stuffing the ballot boxes. Numerous cases of ballot box stuffing were registered by our observers after 17:00 [local time] yesterday," Zakarian said.

Election officials also initially announced a 43 percent turnout figure when the polls closed, but changed that figure to 50 percent a few hours later. There is no minimum turnout required to validate parliamentary elections.

The elections yesterday were also tarnished by a fatal shooting incident at a polling station in the village of Shaumian, southwest of Yerevan.

Shortly before the close of voting yesterday, a gunman armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire at the polling station. Local Justice bloc leader Aramais Barseghian described that shooting to RFE/RL.

"As a result of the shooting, one person was killed -- a retired traffic police officer [who was trying to stop the gunman.] The head of the Shaumian village administration, [who is widely known in the area as a supporter of the opposition], also was wounded along with a [local] member of the election commission," Barseghian said.

Police initially said the incident did not appear to be directly linked to the election.

But both the OSCE and the Council of Europe are urging a thorough investigation into the shooting, which was witnessed by an OSCE observer. The gunman was arrested after being shot and wounded by police on the scene.

Prior to the vote, the Council of Europe had warned that a repeat of the serious irregularities reported during the presidential ballot could endanger Armenia's hard-won membership in the influential human rights organization.

The pro-Kocharian Republican Party, which is led by Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, say complaints about vote-rigging and other electoral fraud are unsubstantiated.

Yuri Yarov, executive secretary of an observer mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States, said earlier today the election appears to have been legitimate and democratic. Yarov said the vote appears to have complied with Armenia's National Electoral Code.