new ambassador's assessment contradicts
the opinion of his predecessor.
The new Russian head of the Yerevan office of
the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe said Thursday there is substantial progress
in Armenia's democratization process, contradicting
the OSCE's harsh criticism of this year's presidential
and parliamentary elections.
He also made an unusually positive assessment
of the situation with press freedom in the country
that sharply contrasted with the opinion of OSCE's
Vienna-based media watchdog.
"Armenia has taken a big step on the path
of democratization," Ambassador Vladimir
Pryakhin declared at a news conference.
Pryakhin said his conclusion takes into account
the 2003 Armenian elections that were marred by
reports of widespread irregularities. He implied
that they compared favorably with the recent parliamentary
vote in neighboring Georgia that were annulled
following similar fraud allegations. Armenia avoided
sliding into both "anarchy" and "stiff
authoritarianism" as a result of the polls,
he added in an apparent reference to the post-election
situations in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The OSCE fielded about 200 mainly Western observers
across Armenia to monitor the course of the presidential
and parliamentary elections held in February-March
and May respectively. They reported numerous instances
of serious fraud and concluded that both ballots
fell short of democratic standards.
In a separate statement issued following the
March 5 presidential run-off, the U.S. State Department
said the administration of President Robert Kocharyan
"missed an important opportunity to advance
democratization by holding a credible election."
Visiting Yerevan in July, the vice president
of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, Giovanni
Kessler, and the director of the OSCE's Warsaw-based
Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights,
Christian Strohal, stood by the election criticism.
They also said they received assurances that the
Armenian authorities will embark on a sweeping
reform of the country's flawed electoral system.
There have been no steps in that direction yet,
however. Some Kocharyan associates had earlier
brushed aside the international criticism. The
most powerful of them, Defense Minister Serzh
Sargsyan, claimed in particular that the Western
observers are less familiar with "Armenian
mentality" than their counterparts from Russia
and other ex-Soviet states that praised their
handling of the elections.
Pryakhin, 59, has previously held various positions
in the Soviet and Russian diplomatic services.
Earlier this year he became the first Russian
diplomat to be appointed by the OSCE Permanent
Council as head of an OSCE field office in a member
country. The decision was taken by consensus,
meaning that the U.S. and other major Western
governments did not oppose his candidacy.
Although the Russian official is technically
accountable only to the Permanent Council, his
position on the Armenian elections mirrors the
stance of official Moscow which rushed to congratulate
Kocharyan on his disputed reelection before the
publication of the final vote results.
The move, portrayed by the authorities as proof
of Kocharyan's international legitimacy, was deplored
by the Armenian opposition which insists that
both elections were rigged in favor of the ruling
establishment. One of the opposition leaders,
Shavarsh Kocharyan, charged this week that Russia
is trying to thwart political reform in the three
South Caucasus states in a bid to keep their rulers
dependent on Russian support.
Pryakhin further contradicted the OSCE when he
stated that "press freedom is being respected"
in Armenia, answering a question about the fairness
of an upcoming tender for a broadcasting license.
The Vienna-headquartered organization comprising
55 member states from Europe, Central Asia and
North America criticized the Armenian authorities
for refusing to lift their ban on the independent
A1+ television following a similar tender held
last July. The OSCE's special representative on
press freedom, Freimut Duve, said its outcome
showed that "freedom of expression in Armenia
continues to be restricted."
Pryakhin indicated that his office will not complain
to the authorities if A1+ loses the December 24
bidding. "A tender means that someone will
lose," he explained, adding that unsuccessful
TV companies can always cite political motives
to justify their defeat.
Pryakhin's predecessor, Ambassador Roy Reeve
of Britain, was far more critical of a Kocharyan-appointed
commission's decision in April 2002 to pull the
plug on A1+ and its subsequent refusals to reopen
the channel that was critical of the Armenian
president. Reeve also exasperated some senior
Armenian officials last June when he initiated
a joint letter by Yerevan-based Western diplomats
that called for the decriminalization of libel
offences in Armenia.