by Richard Giragosian and John Hughes
During the February 19 presidential election, some 15,000 foreign and local monitors were on hand to observe the voting conditions and record any violations of process—about eight observers per polling station republic wide.
Monitors are often members of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and many have multiple experiences in judging election outcomes in post-Soviet republics. The missions to Armenia included representatives from 42 countries that are member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The delegation included 600 internationals divided into "short term" (a few days on the ground) and "long term" (a few weeks), and recruits from 39 local organizations. International observers are usually selected through a vetting process conducted by foreign ministries, and their expenses are covered by their home country.
According to its mandate, the OSCE trains its observers to evaluate voting according to the democratic standards of transparency, equality and accountability.
The region is not unique in its use of election monitors, as about 80 percent of elections worldwide are monitored. (Host countries must approve participation of the observers and even then the OSCE is not obligated. The OSCE boycotted the presidential election this spring in Russia, for example, because it essentially said the work would be a waste of time.)
While the OSCE, through its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), is the most active (and also includes representatives of bodies such as the Council of Europe and occasionally NATO), elections in Armenia have also included monitoring by the Commonwealth of Independent States.
A complimentary preliminary report of the Election Observation Mission (EOM), released on February 20, hardly resembled the harsh criticism of a follow-up report of March 7, apparently prepared according to information the OSCE had either not received or not considered significant, until after March 1.
"Since then (February 20), the OSCE/ODIHR EOM received information from various sources about assaults and intimidation directed towards proxies, domestic observers . . .," the final report states.
Like referees in a sporting match, observer bodies are liable to second-guessing and accusations of prejudice, and their reports are as likely to create discontent as to serve as instruction. They are routinely either dismissed or embraced according to political expediency. In 2003, for example, the EOM's criticism of Armenia was brushed off by some authorities who said the European-based delegation lacked understanding of the "Armenian mentality." Then, this election season, the OSCE preliminary report was used by president-elect Serge Sargsyan as his confirmation of having fairly won the contest, against loud protest to the contrary by his opponents.
The OSCE has had observer missions for elections in Armenia since 1996. Neither that election nor any of the subsequent ones has proved to meet democratic standards. In fact, the only election not criticized for its abuse of process was independent Armenia's first, in 1991. The closest Armenia has come to compliance with a democratic vote was to have the latest election called "mostly in line" with international expectations—and even that evaluation was premature and widely seen as inaccurate.
But on this, the latest of Armenia's failed attempts at holding clean elections, criticism of the observer mission came with accusations that observers themselves bore some responsibility for violence that was in part stirred by the mission's initial but irreversible consent for a process that so many average voters knew to be grossly out of line.
Radio Free Europe observed that the OSCE performance in Armenia had left the organization in a "full-blown credibility crisis."
Armenia's recent troubled vote underscores a question of whether there is merit to even having overseers. If acts of violence, intimidation and fraud occur under the eyes of observers—and are repeated from election to election—then what is the value of their presence?
In this presidential election as in past ones, It's Your Choice, Armenia's largest domestic election monitoring body (NGO), placed representatives in polling stations. As a result it found:
Twenty-two cases of "violation of electoral process"; 11 precincts with "illegal voting"; five cases of "illegal campaigning"; eight cases of "voter gathering and artificially created lines"; seven cases of "unauthorized persons in polling stations"; six cases of "abuse of proxies' and mass media representatives' rights"; seven cases of "abuse of proxy rights"; two cases of "inconvenience of polling stations"; five cases of "shortcomings in final voter lists."
That there weren't more complaints may be seen as something of an endorsement of the effectiveness of having monitors on hand, especially since with each election Armenia has shown improvements in some areas. But in a country with only 1,923 polling stations and about 2.3 million registered voters (including about 450,000 who are registered but live abroad and are ineligible to vote), a process better than February 19's might reasonably be expected more than a decade after monitors first came here with hopes of improving the system.
Some contend that the concept itself is ill-conceived, considering the very fact that observers are only allowed in a country by the consent of ruling authorities (as in this case, invited by Armenia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
And whether any organization has a meaningful presence in altering collective election behavior may be illustrated in the experience of the United States' Charge d'Affaires, Joseph Pennington. In a March interview, Pennington told AGBU that he, himself, had observed questionable conduct during the recounting that followed February 19.
The question to the diplomat, then: If the US' highest authority in Armenia sees something wrong and has no recourse of action, what chance is there for an unknown proxy to have his voice heard?
Not much, the Charge d'Affaires agreed.
Criticism in general has been deflected by OSCE by reiterating that OEMs are not set up to intervene. "We are observers. We are not participating in political processes," said Christian Strohal, the Austrian diplomat currently directing ODIHR, at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's winter meeting in Vienna in February.
Tough Job, Few Rewards
Observing elections within the former Soviet Union has always been a difficult, challenging and even controversial assignment. In most cases, the elections in these countries are inherently flawed from the start, largely limited to a struggle between a powerful ruling political elite and a weak, fractured and ineffective opposition. And in all cases, the international election observers were seen as either insignificant foreigners or as dangerous outsiders seeking to interfere in a country's internal affairs.
In the case of Armenia's presidential election last February, the work of the election observers was especially hard. First, they were dispatched to observe an election that could only be truly understood by knowing the background and underlying details of Armenia's closed and murky political system.
In the case of this election, the contest was largely defined as a handover of power from incumbent President Robert Kocharian. Prevented by the constitution from seeking another term as Armenia's most senior leader, the election was a transition, driven by a scripted and staged passing of power within the country's small ruling elite, from President Kocharian to Prime Minister Serge Sargsyan.
This handover was not without its own obstacles, yet any problems were well-contained within the closed backroom meetings of the leadership. For the outside election observers it was hard to even see, let alone understand, the scripted nature of this particular election.
Second, the outside election observers, many of whom had never previously visited Armenia for more than a few weeks, if at all, had little or no time to learn or build a greater awareness of the predestined nature of this particular election. This also meant that the presidential election was much more of a contest without competition than a true test of democracy.
Recognizing those fundamental shortcomings of a near-impossible mission, the work of the OSCE observers was largely seen from two opposite, yet equally cynical viewpoints—either as uninformed assessments serving to bolster the Armenian authorities by downplaying election fraud, or as undisguised interference in Armenia's internal affairs based on an external, foreign agenda.
Sadly, the performance of the OSCE election observers seemed at different times to support both views. Their initial assessment asserted that the election was "mostly in line" with international standards, while merely noting a need for "further improvements." Such an early assessment, though, was not unexpected, reflecting the OSCE's desire to hail the election as a "step forward" in Armenia's evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, path toward democracy.
The initial assessment stressed that the vote-counting process was generally good and noted that actual voting was judged as "good to very good" in 95 percent of polling stations visited in Armenia. In line with this view, the European Union and the U.S. State Department were also quick to offer their "congratulation" to the Armenian people on an "active and "competitive" election, virtually endorsing the results even before they were officially released.
Ironically, the election observers followed a more critical line in the pre-election period that contrasted greatly with its assessment of Election Day itself. To their credit, the international observers expressed concern in the weeks before the election, warning of Sargsyan's reliance on "administrative resources," or the leverage of state power, to strengthen his candidacy.
Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, the head of the OSCE election monitoring mission, further warned that Sargsyan's "use of the position of prime minister in the election campaign" threatened to interfere with the proper conduct of the vote. Although the diplomat admitted that there was "no international rule that would prevent a prime minister from participating as a candidate in a presidential race," he stressed that "such a situation, of course, puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the prime minister not to use his office to promote his candidacy," adding that "of course, it is a matter of concern when the line that should not be overstepped is being overstepped."
But even the observers' critical view of the pre-election period was deemed as insufficiently weak and permissive by the opposition. In early February, presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian accused the OSCE observers of turning a blind eye to the reality of Armenian politics, adding that "they don't see or don't want to see" the fundamental problems prior to the Armenian election.
Conflict and Credibility
Ter-Petrosian's criticism appeared justified by subsequent incidents, such as the violence during an opposition campaign rally in Artashat. In that incident, which was witnessed by two election observers for the OSCE, a group of pro-government youths scuffled with opposition supporters and pelted them with stones in an apparent attempt to disrupt the gathering. Despite police claims that blamed the opposition itself (and that blamed the victims) for provoking the violence by making "offensive remarks" about Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, Sargsyan's Artashat-based campaign manager, the election observers responded with a weak promise to "investigate this incident."
After the reaction to the election by the Armenian public sparked a series of protests, public rallies and demonstrations, observation missions' "crisis of confidence" rapidly emerged. Faced with such a strident public reaction on the ground and challenged by post-election unrest, the validity of the initial outside endorsement of the election was quickly reassessed.
The handling of the Armenian election first began to turn on February 20 when U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez stated that Washington was "concerned" about aspects of the preliminary report issued by the international election observers in Armenia. The State Department spokesman specifically pointed to the description of the vote count as bad or very bad in 16 percent of constituencies. Meanwhile, on February 21, the European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana expressed his hope that "after the elections all political forces in Armenia will continue working in a responsible way" and added that the "complaints and shortcomings registered by the observers must be investigated."
For its part, the U.S. Mission to the OSCE issued a statement on February 28, noting the election observers' assessment of the vote, but expressing significant concern over "problems" in the election-observer mission's initial report and "certain steps taken by the authorities in the post-election period."
Even a sober reassessment of the election by the observers and the West was too little, and too late, to deal with the mounting post-election crisis in Armenia. This was due to the specific conditions of Armenian politics. The limited impact of outside observers is due to the recent record of elections in Armenia and their very limited leverage over the Armenian government.
Looking back at Armenia's electoral history, it seems that the post-election crisis was a natural reaction, after mounting frustration and apathy and unmet promises of democratic reforms. Armenian presidential elections have been judged as free and fair only once since independence, in October 1991 when Ter-Petrosian was first elected president. That election was followed in September 1996 with Ter-Petrosian's dubious reelection, with a first round fixed to virtually ensure no runoff between him and his former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian.
After that, all presidential and parliamentary elections have been tainted by widespread incidents of voting fraud and electoral violations. Yet outside election observers have failed, each time, to criticize those elections as being neither free nor fair. Those contests were also marred by a cycle of increasing and distressing political violence, with the outside monitors again refraining from damning protest. The net result has been a country endowed with a crippled or disabled democracy, and a population offered little choice and even less voice in politics.
How Does Armenia Compare?
As bad as domestic politics in Armenia has become, the country has still managed to emerge from its tainted elections with a higher rating than some of its neighbors. Although Armenia has lost its early reputation of an "island of democracy" long ago, it remains far ahead of Azerbaijan, where the authorities have openly and blatantly rigged its elections, even in the presence of OSCE observers.
In Azerbaijan, voting irregularities are not as "sophisticated" as in Armenia, or even Georgia, with the Azeri authorities nakedly manipulating the vote count and inflating the number of votes for the incumbent president and ruling party.
Even in Georgia, the initial euphoria of the "Rose Revolution" and subsequent 2004 election that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power has eroded over the past year. Compared to Georgia's 2004 presidential election, which was viewed as free and fair, the January 2008 election that reelected Saakashvili sparked serious questions over the future and present state of democracy in what is seen as an increasingly authoritarian Georgia.
From a broader perspective, another key difference is the role, both real and potential, of the Armenian Diaspora. Despite some isolated cases of Diaspora involvement in the election process, there is significant room for a greater role for the Armenian Diaspora in monitoring democracy in Armenia. In the wake of February 19 and March 1, calls have surfaced for Diaspora to impose more conditions on its aid, holding the authorities to higher standards and greater expectations for good (or at least improved) governance. Such an expanded role for the Diaspora also needs to forge accountability in Armenian politics, an element long absent from the country's closed political system.
Lessons to Be Learned
Although the international observers can be subject to a fair amount of criticism for their work in monitoring the Armenian presidential election, such criticism must be tempered by recognizing several fundamental limitations and shortcomings. For one, while the assessment of the February election can be seen as unduly positive, the observers themselves can not fairly be accused of any bias or prejudice.
Aside from the natural limitations facing the observers, the deeper challenge to their effectiveness stems from their limited impact. In fact, this is a problem shared by the United Sates, the European Union, and all other outside actors. The lack of leverage to pressure the Armenian authorities for real improvements in democracy, good governance and even corruption, is a serious problem.
It also suggests that the main conclusion or lesson learned from the Armenian election is that true lasting political change in Armenia must be implemented from within by duly elected leaders who govern, and not just rule, the country.
"We don't have the answers to Armenia's problems," said U.S. Charge d'Affaires Pennington. "Ultimately these are the problems and challenges that Armenia faces in getting back to a democratic path. The international community and the United States can push and push and certainly use what influence we have in terms of assistance programs to try to encourage the government to go in the right direction, but ultimately we can't solve these problems. We can't step in and do it. Reform is going to have to be generated from within."