Will Spring 2012 Be Eastern? The Prospects for Free and Fair Elections in Armenia

Four years after disputed presidential elections led to post-electoral violence, 10 deaths, the imprisonment of political activists and a polarized society, Armenians are due to return to the polls. This spring’s parliamentary elections will show how far this European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) partner has implemented its reform commitments five years into its agreed Action Plan with the EU.

In February 2012, a group of experts from Yerevan and Brussels, including Davit Khachaturyan (Open Society Foundations, Armenia), Varuzhan Hoktanyan (Transparency International, Armenia) and Hrant Kostanyan (Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels), explored the challenges facing the country. Their discussions highlighted anti-corruption efforts, the electoral process, civil society support and the media as requiring attention from the EU through an approach based on conditionality.

On the basis of an alternative ENP progress report for Armenia in 2011, they analysed the role the EU could play in pushing for further reforms up to and beyond the May elections. Davit Khachaturyan suggested that in addition to annual progress reporting, the EU should evaluate the action plan period 2006 to 2011. He also emphasised the need to look beyond legislation to the implementation of reforms. Despite ongoing legal and judicial reforms and compliance with the vast majority of the Council of Europe’s (GRECO) recommendations, the changes mostly remain on paper. Fighting the recent electoral reform, he warned against falling into the trap of putting all the blame on past legislation and not on the real problem of poor enforcement.

Varuzhan Hoktanyan agreed that corruption remains one of the most pressing concerns in Armenia. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and its Global Corruption Barometer indicate that there has been at least stagnation, if not a worsening of corruption. Again, legal reforms are not being implemented. There remains a heavy collusion between political and business elites. ‘State capture’ has increased since 2005, including through the abuse of administrative resources during elections. He noted how heads of schools and mayors were called by governors during previous electoral campaigns and told to secure a certain number of votes.

The experts welcomed rhetorical support for “free and fair elections” and put forward ideas to enhance fairness. First, given the large numbers of absentee voters (about 450,000 out of a voting population of less than 2 million, at a conservative estimate), voters’ lists should be published well in advance to allow political parties to verify them. Greater transparency, for example publishing the list of voters who actually voted, to ensure deceased and emigrated persons did not ‘vote’ and strategically installing cameras to prevent ballot stuffing, could be helpful in the Armenian context. They also agreed that for elections to be free and fair, they must be competitive, which requires the operating environment for political parties to be improved. Hoktanyan reflected on the practice of politicisation of tax bodies by targeting individuals or businesses who make donations to opposition parties.

Hrant Kostanyan recalled recent EU developments, including the Lisbon Treaty, and the review of its neighbourhood policy in light of the Arab Spring, that would support efforts to encourage reforms and their implementation. The concept of “deep and sustainable” democracy and a focus on the “more for more” principle could be useful tools, both in terms of the general political approach to the Association Agreement, and also applied to specific sectors. Although this conditionality-based approach is not new, the EU is taking more assertive positions and has finally acknowledged that focusing on stability at the expense of democracy is not a beneficial strategy in the long term.

The new EU emphasis on strengthening civil society and capacity building, in particular the proposed Civil Society Facility (CSF) and a future European Endowment for Democracy (EED), could be a means to foster democracy in the country. The panel noted that Armenia has a vibrant civil society but it faces many difficulties, in particular in terms of financial, human and technical resources. This is true especially for the few working on human rights and those taking an oppositionist or critical stance. They tend to be closely watched and face additional challenges in exercising their fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly. Discussion also addressed the role of the Armenian diaspora as a potential actor in strengthening civil society.

Media independence and pluralism should also be a high priority in the EU’s agenda. Restrictions to the choice of stations and licences following digitalisation remains a concern, as are the disproportionately high fines being charged to media outlets in libel and slander cases.

The key message was that clean elections are necessary, but democracy requires other aspects such as accountability and respect for human rights. Kostanyan concluded that “deep democracy is not only desirable but feasible”. With a spate of elections coming in the region, it remains to be seen whether the Armenian vote will herald an Eastern spring.

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