YEREVAN (A.W.)—On Feb. 19, around 10 minutes into a press conference where the international election observation mission was presenting its assessment of the Feb. 18 Armenian presidential elections, a young woman marched to the front of the room, slipped away from the grip of the security personnel, faced the media, and began reading from her clipboard—her small voice unfazed, floating above the voices in the crowd.
“Dear political tourists, we have had enough of your efforts to legitimize the fraudulent elections,” she read. “The recent presidential election in Armenia, when compared to previous presidential elections, has registered one step forward and three steps backwards, two steps to the right and half a step to the left. In other words, they haven’t corresponded to the Constitution of Armenia, to the requirements of the Election Code, and to international standards.”
By disrupting the press conference that would, in effect, rubber-stamp the results of the election, Lena Nazaryan wanted to remind her compatriots and the world that only the citizens of Armenia could grant legitimacy to those elected.
Nazaryan later told the Armenian Weekly that she knew she would not remain silent if the assessment presented by the international observers ultimately acquiesced to the authorities and to—what she considered—their brazen efforts to steal the election. “I had decided to interrupt the conference if I deemed it to contradict reality. And that’s what I did,” she said.
“I am certain that the elections were rigged,” she continued. “I was not asking the [international observers] to revise their assessment. I simply wanted to tell the citizens of Armenia that they are the ones who should assess the elections, and they are the ones who have to guard their votes. I’ve never been a Heritage Party supporter, but I am ready to protect the rights of all those citizens who cast their votes for Raffi Hovannisian.”
A day earlier, Nazaryan had been an observer at Precincts 17/2 and 17/3 in Ardashad, where she faced harassment throughout the day. She was called an “idiot” and told to “get lost” by a man, presumably a voter, appearing to be friends with the Republican Party proxy stationed there. Her efforts to document events on her video camera—something she says she is allowed to do as an observer—were met with resistance. Even the Republican Party proxy threatened her. The president of the precinct remained disinterested, refraining from admonishing the trouble-makers.
“Their aim was to drive me away from that precinct. Throughout the day, insults were hurled at me. The president of that precinct was on more than friendly terms with the Republican representatives; they whispered in corners throughout the day, and he did not miss a chance to verbally attack me. It was clear that I was interfering with their plans,” she said.
In the adjacent Precinct 17/2, where Nazaryan’s colleague was stationed as an observer, the situation seems to have been worse. “There was ballot stuffing, the observer’s video camera was stolen, he was constantly cursed and subjected to threats, and there was even an invitation to participate in a ‘carousel,’” said Nazaryan, who was one of the 48 “Europe in Law Association” observers and the approximately 6,250 registered local observers that day. A carousel is a form of election fraud whereby a pre-marked ballot is given to a voter who is asked to return with an unmarked one in order to get paid.
By the end of Election Day, over 350 instances of irregularities, ranging from threats to bribery and vote rigging, were reported on the online election monitoring site iDitord.org.
Nazaryan told the Weekly that she felt “hopeless” and “disappointed” upon returning to Yerevan. Then, she received a phone call from a friend who informed her that the international observers were preparing to give a statement—most likely, a wishy-washy, vague assessment. The friend told her that, along with a few others, they were preparing an alternative text. “Someone had to do it,” said Nazaryan. “So, I too went to Marriott and I waited until they were done presenting their argument. Their assessment did not correspond with reality. They said that Armenia had taken a step forward, when compared to the previous elections, and that it would soon become a democracy. They didn’t say how many kilometers were left to reach democracy. Everything was clear to me by then. I interrupted their event and said the following: ‘Dear political tourists, you are legitimizing the fraudulent elections. You are trampling upon the very same democratic principles that you yourselves have adopted.’”
“This was my personal response to the treacherous, foul-mouthed, thuggish, and criminal local representatives of the Republican Party at Precincts 17/2 and 17/3, and the presidents of the local precincts who sold their principles and did not remain accountable to local observers. They cursed and harassed the local observers, and assumed an angelic demeanor in the presence of the international ones,” she said.
And that is why she believes the conclusion reached by her and her peers represent the realities on the ground, and not the manicured version witnessed by the international observers during their short visits to the precincts.
Nazaryan is not alone. Many others have criticized the assessment presented by the international election observation mission comprised of representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the European Parliament (EP). Although the international observer mission did note “some key concerns,” it deemed the election overall “well-administered,” and “characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms.” The personal accounts from observers, journalists, and citizens that have appeared on the news and social networking sites challenge that conclusion. One such account, the story of a Transparency International observer, Narine Esmaeili, who was pinned against the wall while ballot stuffing took place, went viral on social networking sites. The international observation mission did not allude to that incident in their statements, even though, according to Esmaeili, “this was probably the biggest cheating in all of Armenia,” involving 400 or so fraudulent votes.
Policy Forum Armenia published the results of its preliminary analysis on the elections: “Our results strongly indicate that the final outcome of [the] February 2013 election was subject to massive manipulations and interference and did not reflect the free will of the Armenian citizens. They also call into question the role of foreign election observers in the Armenian context, specifically their impartiality and ability to detect election fraud that is becoming ever more sophisticated.”
Nazaryan says the next order of business is to declare the official results of the Feb. 18 elections unlawful and to demand a new round of elections, where all civil society resources will serve to guarantee a free and fair election. “It is time for Armenia to have a legitimate president,” she told the Weekly, and added, “We do not recognize or accept any heroes or saviors. We believe in and accept you alone, citizen of the Republic of Armenia, because you are the bearer of authority.”
Below is a translation of the statement read by Nazaryan during the international observation mission press conference, as published on CivilNet.
Dear political tourists, we have had enough of your efforts to legitimize the fraudulent elections.
The recent presidential election in Armenia, when compared to previous presidential elections, has registered one step forward and three steps backwards, two steps to the right and a half step to the left. In a word, they haven’t corresponded to the RA Constitution, to the demands of the Election Code as well as international standards.
The elections have proceeded against the backdrop of proposed reforms to the Election Code by the parliamentary opposition that were rejected by the ruling majority. Even though international and domestic observers, rights defenders, and the opposition raised concerns, especially regarding glaring inaccuracies in the voter rolls, after the parliamentary election, nevertheless, the ruling authorities did nothing to fix the problem before this recent presidential election.
In essence, last year’s parliamentary election and yesterday’s presidential election took place on the same legal-normative basis.
Of note is the fact that in the Feb. 18 presidential election none of Armenia’s primary political opposition forces either nominated their own candidate or supported any of the nominated candidates. I refer to the Armenian National Congress, Prosperous Armenia, the ARF, and the Free Democrats. This is ample proof that the election was not truly competitive.
The fact that none of the primary opposition groups refused to nominate their own candidate or support any other candidate running points to the deep level of mistrust of citizens and political forces regarding the electoral process.
Thus, the opposition forces in the parliament, from the outset, have labeled the presidential election a farce and a show, since as previously noted, the ruling majority squashed the passage of election reforms proposed by the opposition prior to the election period.
Even though on the surface there was the appearance that important democratic freedoms were being safeguarded during the campaign, including the right to run a free campaign, in reality, the campaign was noteworthy by its competitive inequality in favor of the candidate of the regime. In particular, administrative resources and powers were put into the service of the latter. This was accomplished via pressure brought to bear on state and public employees to attend campaign events of Serge Sarkisian and to vote in his favor.
The election campaign did not proceed peacefully. Violence was inflicted on candidate Paruyr Hayrikian. The man was shot. Another candidate, Andreas Ghoukasyan, staged a hunger strike to protest the electoral process which he labeled a mere show. The press covered cases of violence even on Election Day.
The campaign also stood out by its lack of political and individual professionalism. Candidates employed the crudest of language and public relation stunts. For example, the various incidents that took place during the campaign conducted by the regime’s candidate were widely mocked by large segments of society. As a consequence, citizens tended not to take the election process seriously.
On Election Day, polling precincts were transformed into theatrical stages where citizens showed their attitude to the process. The press and social internet sites were full of ballots invalidated by voters who drew caricatures on them. They drew images of figures from the plant and animal world, images lifted from fairy tales, and television cartoon characters. In one precinct, a voter literally ate his ballot as a sign of protest. It is significant to note that according to official statistics, the number of invalidated ballots came in third place.
Reports of duplicate voting, ballot stuffing, bribes, substitute voting, and other scams were raised throughout the election itself.
Thus, yesterday’s presidential election in Armenia can be described as yet another normal appalling election.
Dear political tourists, we’ve had enough of you legitimizing the fraudulent election. You are trampling those democratic values that you yourselves have broken.