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Report on The 2003 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Armenia
Thursday, July 01, 2004

In February and March 2003, Armenia held its fourth presidential election since independence. According to the official results, President Robert Kocharian won re-election in two rounds, defeating challenger Stepan Demirchian 67.4 percent to 33.5 percent.

Despite the official tallies, Kocharian’s re-election was difficult. He failed to win over 50 percent of the vote in the February 19th first round, necessitating a runoff with Demirchian—the first time a sitting president in the Caucasus has been forced to a second round.

The opposition organized large anti-Kocharian demonstrations in Yerevan before the first round. Some opposition leaders made threatening statements, warning, for example, of violence if Kocharian tried to rig the vote.

Considering the opposition’s inability to rally around one candidate, Armenia’s record of poor elections and Kocharian’s hold on the state apparatus, his failure to win a first round victory was surprising. His agreement to participate in a runoff may have been a concession to widespread opposition sentiment and concern that claims of outright victory in an increasingly tense, polarized atmosphere might have led to major confrontations.

Nevertheless, the authorities did not flinch during the second round. In the interim, some 200 opposition supporters were detained for participating in demonstrations. About 80 of them received prison terms, often in closed hearings without benefit of counsel.

OSCE observers concluded that both rounds failed to meet international standards. State media displayed egregious favoritism towards the incumbent, on whose behalf state resources were used lavishly. Ballot stuffing, especially during the second round vote count, was rampant. The most positive feature of the elections was an unprecedented, live, televised debate between Kocharian and Demirchian before the second round.

The election has cast a cloud on Kocharian’s legitimacy and deeply strained government-opposition relations. Armenia’s failure to hold a fair election has entrenched a pattern of vote fraud and has worrisome implications for the country’s democratization, as illustrated by the judgement of Kocharian’s powerful Defense Minister and campaign manager, Serzh Sarkissian: “People who have grown up and lived in Europe cannot understand our mentality. They have their rules and views on democracy, and we have ours.”

Armenia’s Constitutional Court refused to annul Kocharian’s victory, but did cast doubt on his legitimacy by recommending a vote of confidence in the president. It was the first time a constitutional court in the former USSR did not routinely affirm official election results.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was quick to congratulate Kocharian. Washington, however, echoed the OSCE/ODIHR view of the election. President Bush’s letter to Kocharian, sent after significant delay, did not contain the word “congratulations.”

 A statement of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE on May 29 expressed solidarity with the ODIHR assessment of Armenia’s parliamentary election: “The markedly mixed assessment of [the] elections is particularly disappointing considering the great progress Armenia has otherwise made over the past 11 years in building a modern society of which its people and government can be justly proud.” The United States called on Armenia to launch “swift action on the [ODIHR’s] recommendations” for electoral reform as “the best reaffirmation of the commitments that Armenia has made to the basic principles of democracy and fundamental human rights that OSCE represents.”

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  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Urges Russia to Cease Blatant Violations of OSCE Principles

    WASHINGTON—On the conclusion of the December 4-5 OSCE Ministerial Council in Basel, Switzerland, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “The OSCE Ministerial this year has been exceptional. I welcome the fact that an overwhelming majority of OSCE countries condemned the unlawful occupation of Crimea, defended the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and called for Russia to end its support for violence in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine have violated the most fundamental principles of the Helsinki Final Act, on which the OSCE is based. “Moving forward, the OSCE must focus on the implementation of its core commitments. The OSCE PA has spoken to this issue by passing a resolution I introduced in July, calling on Russia to cease its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles, not only in Ukraine but regarding other neighbors and at home as well. “Other serious human rights concerns in the OSCE region were spotlighted by the absence of some leading figures from this year’s Ministerial meeting. “While Turkmenistan’s current ambassador to the OSCE addressed his counterparts in Basel, the fate of his predecessor, Batyr Berdiev – as well as some 100 other prisoners – remains unknown. I welcome the Swiss Chairmanship’s efforts to address the issues of torture and enforced disappearances during their chairmanship and call on Turkmenistan to tell the families of Ambassador Berdiev and the other disappeared persons what has happened to their loved ones. “In addition, Rasul Jafarov was prevented from leading a civil society discussion on freedom of expression in Basel. Jafarov remains imprisoned in Azerbaijan in retaliation for his activism. Eldeniz Hajiyev, another human rights activist, was unable to travel to Basel because she is under house arrest in Baku. I commend the 43 OSCE countries which worked to advance an OSCE decision on freedom of expression and urge Azerbaijan to cease its flagrant persecution of independent civil society activists.”

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s Death

    WASHINGTON—Sunday, November 16 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian tax officials. He died in prison after being held for 11 months without trial.   U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “It is with sadness and respect that we mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian government authorities. During the past five years, the crimes that Sergei first exposed have been further documented.  Despite credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Russian government officials have failed to bring those responsible to justice. “Perhaps worse, the facts of the case – including misappropriation of Russian tax resources and the ensuing cover-up by Russian government officials – have been distorted, to the extent that the Russian government has posthumously prosecuted the late Mr. Magnitsky for the financial crimes perpetrated by those answerable for his death. “After five years, my outrage at the continuing refusal of Russian leaders’ to confront their own transgressions in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has not abated. Instead, I continue to be amazed at how Russian authorities continue to concoct conspiracy theories attributing blame to others, with tragic consequences: they prohibit their young people from participating in U.S. high school exchange programs, strangle political activity and civic involvement of NGOs, and restrict the media.   “The Russian government has forsaken its obligation to ensure for citizens of the Russian Federation the freedoms of expression, assembly and the right to fair, impartial judicial processes. This rejection has consequences for Russia and its people; for its neighbors, especially Ukraine; and more broadly for us all.   “As we remember Sergei Magnitsky and his sacrifice for justice and transparency in Russia, we and our partners must reaffirm our unwavering support for the international commitments to basic freedoms. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted in 2012, must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • Ukraine's Pivotal Parliamentary Poll

    Hon. Michael Burgess, a member of Congress from the state of Texas, presided the briefing on Ukrainian parliamentary elections, an important moment for the future of the State. Ukraine faced significant internal challenges, such as overcoming the institutional corruption which had so debilited the country, reforming the system of governance, getting the economy back on track and tracking the dire humanitarian situation resulting from the war and other challenges. Hon Burgess was joined by four distinguished panelists, all seasoned experts with long years of exeperience working with Ukraine: Olha Aivazovska, Katie Fox, Stephen Nix, and Gavin Weise.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Public Briefing on Ukrainian Elections

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following public briefing: “Ukraine’s Pivotal Parliamentary Poll” Friday, November 14, 2014 2:00PM – 3:30PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 608 On October 26, Ukraine held early parliamentary elections that international observers—including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—assessed as largely positive, with the exception of the disenfranchisement of voters in Russian-occupied Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. The elections, which swept into power Ukraine’s most pro-Western parliament in history, represented a critical milestone in the country’s democratic evolution.   Experts from three major organizations with decades of on-the-ground experience in Ukraine will examine the conduct and results of the elections, as well as the potential for the newly elected parliament to confront the coming challenge of forging a democratic, secure, independent future for their strategically important country. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Olha Aivazovska, Board Chair, Ukrainian citizen network OPORA Katie Fox, Deputy Director, Eurasia, National Democratic Institute Stephen Nix, Director of Eurasia, International Republican Institute Gavin Weise, Deputy Director, Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems

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