Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia Escapes Europe Ban

Council of Europe resolution postpones day of reckoning for Yerevan government.
By Rita Karapetian
The Armenian opposition has criticised a decision by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, to give the government more time to meet a series of tough benchmarks for democracy.

The assembly decided to give Armenia until January next year to meet a number of criteria set following the political crisis created by a disputed presidential election in February and the bloodshed that followed it on March 1-2.

It will still face the risk of losing its voting rights in PACE if it is deemed to have failed to comply with these demands.

Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian said his country had already begun to move ahead.

“We don’t need short-term solutions and formal proposals,” he said. “What is important is the foundations that are being laid down, and the decisions taken, are focused on the future.”

But former president and opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian was scathing about the PACE decision, saying the assembly had shirked its duty.

He described the PACE rapporteurs on Armenia, Georges Colombier and John Prescott as “defence lawyers” for the Armenian government.

“The Council of Europe has demonstrated its inability to force the authorities of Armenia to fulfil the demands of Resolution 1609 within the set time, and that is a result of the indecisiveness and lack of principles of the Council of Europe,” said Ter-Petrosian.

Resolution 1609, passed on April 17, requires Armenia “to release all persons detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges”, to make changes to the law on public assembly, and to hold an independent investigation into the bloodshed. It also calls for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition.

In a new resolution, numbered 1620 and passed on June 25, the assembly said, “While regretting the delay in implementing the concrete measures to comply with its demands, the Assembly acknowledges that the time given to the Armenian authorities was short.”

It resolved to send the council’s human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, to Armenia to report back in September on the questions of the investigation demanded by PACE and the release of detainees.

Colombier, one of the two rapporteurs, told Radio Liberty, “Armenia is waiting for us to help it and not just condemn it. The authorities in Armenia ought to prove that Armenia is climbing out of the pit which it fell into accidentally after March 1.”

Raffi Hovannissian, leader of the Heritage Party and one of the few opposition members included in the delegation to Strasbourg, walked out of the session in protest, saying he was suspending his own cooperation with PACE, “until Armenia meets both its own and European standards.”

“Armenia has failed its democracy test,” he said. “There are still dozens of political prisoners here and they should be freed now, not next January.”

Stepan Safarian, a member of parliament from the Heritage Party, called the resolution “another plausible lie”, which he said gave the impression that the Armenian government was instituting reforms when it was not actually doing so. What was needed, he said, was deep institutional reform, which the government was currently avoiding.

Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, said the decision to postpone a decision was not unexpected.

“PACE has no interest in subjecting Armenia to tough sanctions, as was the case previously with Belarus,” he said. “PACE is interested in getting rid of the tension and crisis in the country, and it prefers to do that sitting at the negotiation table, not in a tough confrontation.”

The authorities and pro-government parliamentarians say that they have made real progress in meeting PACE’s demands. They point, for example, to a commission of enquiry formed to investigate the events of March 1-2.

Naira Zohrabian, a member of parliament with the pro-government Prosperous Armenia party said it was “unprecedented” that this commission included representatives from outside parliament.

Ter-Petrosian has refused to take part in the commission. Hovannissian, meanwhile, proposed that two members of parliament arrested after the March 1-2 trouble, Myasnik Malkhasian and Sasun Mikaelian, should be invited onto the commission – a suggestion that was turned down.

At a recent rally in Yerevan, Ter-Petrosian said his only demand for the moment was for the release of political prisoners. If that happened, he said, he was ready to enter into a dialogue with the authorities.

The prosecutor’s office insists there are no political prisoners in Armenia, but Ter-Petrosian says that any members of his opposition movement now in detention were arrested on political charges.

According to chief prosecutor Aghvan Hovsepian, 46 out of the 115 people detained have been released.

The new PACE resolution is being seen as a provisional victory for President Sarkisian. The confrontation between opposition and government is likely to continue for the remainder of the year.

Harutiun Khachatrian, an analyst with Noyan Tapan news agency, said the decision would allow the president to buy more time to consolidate his power.

Levon Zurabian, a leading member of Ter-Petrosian’s Popular Movement, noted that at least the resolution kept the Armenian government under PACE’s supervision. with the threat of sanctions still hanging over it.

Opposition groups did have occasion to celebrate another decision coming out of Strasbourg. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on June 17 that the Armenian government had acted illegally by revoking the broadcasting license of pro-opposition television station A1+ in 2002. The government was ordered to pay a 20,000 euro fine.

Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, welcomed the ruling as a victory for freedom of speech.

However, it is not clear if and when the station will be allowed to start broadcasting again.

One point in the PACE resolution, calling for A1+’s license to be restored, was taken out after pro-government deputies argued it was up to the national broadcasting commission to hold an open tender process for licenses.

The director of A1+, Mesrop Movsisian, told IWPR that a new range of frequencies would become available this autumn, and his company would be among the bidders.

Rita Karapetian is a journalist with the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.

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