I Do Not Think the Referendum Divided Further the Armenian Public

Interview with Mr. Andreas Gross - the Head of PACE Delegation observing the December 6th Constitutional referendum in Armenia

- Mr. Gross, it’s my true pleasure, to do another interview with you after some five years. Thank you very much for your readiness and special thanks for so correct and profound assessments of the December 6th referendum, delivered in PACE delegation’s press-release. May I ask you to give more details about the members of the PACE cross-party delegation that observed the December 6th referendum in Armenia? Are you going to present your observations and conclusions to PACE, and if yes, then through which process and format?

  • Unfortunately, we were only a small delegation. Too many parliamentarians were unable to join us because they had to make budget-decisions in their Parliaments and could not come to Yerevan.

After the referendum we summed up our impressions and insights in a short press statement, which was the base of a first debate in the Monitoring Committee on Wednesday the 9th of December, where two of us were present as well as our Armenian colleague Armen Rustamyan. Furthermore we will write a memorandum, which includes more observations as well as some comments we got from responsible people in Yerevan towards our press-statement. This memorandum will be part of the progress-report of the Assembly, which will be discussed in the Bureau and the plenary of PACE on the first Monday of the next session, that will convene in the last week of January 2016.

- The delegation was incredible with its assessment that “the referendum was driven by political interests instead of the needs of the Armenian public”. How did you reach to so perfect and profound perception of the reality within just several days?

  • We discussed nevertheless with about 25 people from NGO’s, media, and the administration, the governing and opposition parties as well as with diplomats and engaged citizens. And we read some reports of the Venice Commission of the CoE as well as many articles of the world press of the last weeks and months, which tried to analyze and understand what happens and happened in Armenia. And when you are able to read and listen between the lines and when you know the history of the country and the political culture of the region you begin to understand something. But it’s always difficult and I do not pretend to know enough and I am always ready to learn more and better. And during the referendum on Sunday I also addressed some of the citizens we met and tried to understand the way the saw the referendum and it’s background.

- Another quote from your assessments: “ The core of the constitutional change - the shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system - was understood by too many citizens as being a means for the current president to remain in power after the end of his second term”. This phrase alone unveils all the maneuvers, calculations and latent intentions that President Sargsyan could have. The assessment is so accurate, honest and far-reaching. May I ask you to comment it?

  • It’s a hypothesis that I draw from all the talks I mentioned before. It does not address anyway President Sargsyan, whose intentions I do not know, because he did not invite me for a meeting during my stay in Yerevan. Yet I observed that many people are confused about his intensions. Although a close collaborator of him and former colleague and friend of mine – we both were seven years ago monitoring-rapporteurs for Serbia – stressed, that the today’s President has no intentions to stay in power after his second mandate will end. But there are lot of suspiciousness and rumors going around in the society and it would be the duty of the responsible people to convince their fellow citizens about their real intensions and what they really want to achieve.

- You’ve also listed some of those unending Electoral Code violation allegations. To your impression which factor plays decisive role in aggravating so many violations – the tricks and failures of the Electoral Code, or the criminal mentality of the Armenian authorities used to gain the desired results by every mean?

  • I do not think that one should speak about a “criminal mentality” of the authorities. A colleague of mine told me that we had enumerated rather adequately the shortcomings of the system which he would also like to change; he thinks by changing the system they would also be able to overcome many of these shortcomings. And some of the points that we repeated again, have really been addressed; e.g. the dead people who only remain on the voters’ list when they have died abroad – or the “carusel voting” which seems to have been diminished already quite remarkably. And the officials who led themselves be bribed know that they will be much harsher punished when they are caught then before. So some efforts are being made and I would like to support their efficiency to overcome these failures. Because only when the process is correct you get the legitimacy for the outcome you need as well as the restoration of the trust of people, that politics in Armenia as elsewhere do need so much.

- Sir, to your impression how relevant are the fears that this referendum divided further the Armenian public, or deepened the crisis of trust in the society towards the incumbent President and his government?

  • Frankly, I do not think the referendum divided further the Armenian public; perhaps it could not overcome the division as much as I would have hoped, but I do not see deepening of the division. We said in the statement, that we would have hoped for more time and efforts by the authorities for more serious debates with the citizens, so they get the consciousness of their ownership of the constitution as it should happen in a constitutional referendum process. In this way they would have also contributed more to the integration of the society and the overcoming of the old divisions. But for this you also have to address the economic regress and exclusion many citizens feel and are preoccupied of.

- Taking advantage from the fact, that exactly a month ago you leaded the PACE delegation observing the November 1 Parliamentary elections in Turkey, may I ask to compare the voting and electoral process in large in two countries? Where does it seem more democratic – in Armenia or in Turkey and why?

  • This is a very difficult task; you hardly can compare the two countries. Size, culture, history and problems, as well as the developments in the last 15 years are extremely different.
    In Turkey you have strong and sometimes nearly fanatic parties, and very engaged civil society, since 13 years a new party is in power, which worked very successfully for the wellbeing of 90 percent of the poorer people and the middle classes and pushed further democracy and the respect for Human Rights, although there has been in the last three years a regression again, a authoritarian tendency at the top of the state, with new violent tensions with the main challenge in Turkey - the so called Kurdish question, as well as new discrimination and aggressions against critical thinkers in the media and the opposition. The Armenian society is politically much more apathetic, much less hot, marked by a huge emigration, economic problems, and weak political parties.

The Turkish elections were undermined by much violence, fears and tensions; the context of the Armenian referendum was in spite of all economic hardships much more peaceful and as a project it reflected readiness to reduce the authoritarian character of the system. Still President Erdogan wants to increase his already strong authority, but is challenged in doing so by many parts of the engaged Turkish society. But both countries have enormous opportunities for really strengthening and developing their democracies which both should not miss.

- The problems of electoral processes both in Turkish and in Armenia have many roots and reasons; however there are also shortcomings drawn by latent calculations and intentions of the first figures. Judging by the election process, which leader seems more autocratic and dangerous for democracy - President Erdogan or President Sargsyan?

  • I know Erdogan much better, much longer and I know much more about him than about Sargsyan; that’s why I would be unfair when I would try to answer this question today. I am ready to do this after I have the opportunity to visit Armenia more often in future - what may really happen in 2016.

- Let’s hope and thank you very much for the interview.

Lusine Petrosyan

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