Elections held in Armenia in 2017 resulted in the ruling party holding onto power, but were marred by allegations of fraud, including vote-buying and misuse of state resources. CIVICUS speaks to Artur Sakunts, chairman of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly - Vanadzor Office (HCA Vanadzor), a non-political, non-religious and not-for-profit civil society organisation that seeks to advance the values of human rights, democracy, tolerance and pluralism in Armenia. HCA Vanadzor works in the areas of research, dissemination, litigation, training, lobbying, campaigning and the promotion of public debate.
1. How would you describe the current state of democracy and human rights in Armenia?
Since 2013, human rights and democracy have considerably regressed in Armenia. The constitutional referendum, held in 2015, and elections to the National Assembly and Yerevan City Council in 2017 were marked by fraud and procedural violations. As a result of the constitutional referendum, Armenia changed from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, and the changes began to be implemented during the 2017 elections. The new parliamentary system strengthened the dominant position of the Republican Party, which is the main party, and the power of its leader. A number of opposition figures have suffered and still suffer persecution. Any demonstration of civic activism has faced a harsh reaction and pressure by law enforcement agencies, and the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and civil society initiatives has further shrunk. Additionally, the Four Day War with Azerbaijan in April 2016 led to a large loss of human lives and exposed the country's vulnerability to external threats. All these processes have occurred in an atmosphere of impunity. Meanwhile, the steps towards reform taken by the authorities have been reactive or aimed at solving problems by increasing the social burden on citizens rather than by making systemic changes.
In December 2015, a new phase of negotiations was launched between Armenia and the European Union (EU). The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement was initialled in March 2017 and eventually signed in November 2017. However, the unpredictable behaviour of the Armenian authorities creates uncertainty in terms of the expected developments in EU-Armenia relations, even after the agreement has been signed.
2. Have recent changes in CSO regulations affected civil society’s ability to contribute to democratic governance?
On 16 December 2016, after long-held discussions, the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was adopted, entitling CSOs to represent the public interest in court, albeit only in the field of environmental protection. It should be noted, however, that in its ruling of 7 September 2010, the Armenian Constitutional Court recognised the right of CSOs to represent the public interest in national courts without any limitation.
Another risk associated with the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was that it initially prescribed state supervision over the financial activity of all CSOs. However, as a result of public debate, this requirement was eventually prescribed only for state-funded CSOs.
In short, contrary to expectations, the new regulations ended up being a positive development for civil society.
3. What is the environment like for human rights defenders in Armenia?
In early 2016 a well-known human rights defender, Karen Andreasyan, stepped down as Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman without providing any reasons. It should be noted that in the autumn of 2015, during the presentation of his annual report to the National Assembly, Andreasyan was strongly criticised and personally insulted by Republican Party deputies. His resignation exposed the vulnerability of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. In December 2013 Andreasyan had published a well-substantiated report on the spread of corruption in courts and the lack of independence of judges, which was harshly criticised by the Prosecutor General's Office, the Republican faction of the National Assembly and several judges. None of the concerns raised by the report on the state of the judiciary have been considered or examined.
Following the National Assembly’s appointment of a new Human Rights Ombudsman, the concentration of oversight and protection mechanisms over different fields of human rights, including children’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, has increasingly raised serious concerns. Along with such centralisation, space for other human rights institutions is becoming more limited and the variety of human rights protection mechanisms is being reduced. Given that since the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was introduced, all Ombudsmen have resigned before the end of their term under pressure from political and executive powers, the concentration of protection mechanisms in the hands of a single person makes the Human Rights Ombudsman and human rights protection mechanisms extremely vulnerable.
In early July 2016, an armed opposition group known as Sasna Tsrer seized a police station and took hostages. As Sasna Tsrer members underwent trial, significant restrictions were imposed on various stakeholders engaged with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, and particularly on attorneys and on the public monitoring group on penitentiary institutions. Before Sasna Tsrer’s surrender, members of the Group of Public Observers Conducting Public Monitoring in Penitentiary Institutions and Bodies of the Ministry of Justice were illegally banned from meeting Zhirayr Sefilyan, a political prisoner detained at the Vardashen penitentiary institution. Later, members of the Group of Public Observers were also banned from meeting Sasna Tsrer members detained at the Nubarashen penitentiary institution, after information was aired that on 28 June 2017 Sasna Tsrer members had been subjected to violence at the General Jurisdiction Court of the Avan and Nor Nork administrative districts.
It should be also noted that during the former Minister of Justice’s tenure, draft regulations were put forward suggesting that any new members of the Group of Public Observers would need to be confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, although the Group's Charter states that new members only need to be accepted by the Group itself. The draft regulation was rejected, but it was an attempt to restrict the activities and independence of the Group of Public Observers. The current Human Rights Ombudsman has not reacted in any way to this attempt, which is yet further evidence of the dangers of concentrating human rights defence mechanisms.
Illegal attempts were made to search the defence attorneys of Sasna Tsrer members before they entered the courtroom. As the attorneys resisted those searches, the court adopted a tactic of imposing sanctions on the attorneys and replacing them with public defenders, which posed a risk of substantially reducing the protection of Sasna Tsrer members. The legal community also faces pressures through disciplinary proceedings initiated against lawyers on suspicious grounds. An added challenge is the behaviour of the Bar Association, which imposes its own disciplinary sanctions on individual attorneys. The Bar Association’s chairman has openly argued against laws preventing domestic violence and has repeatedly made homophobic statements.
The environment has also been unfavourable for journalists, including legislative restrictions and physical attacks, particularly during protests, as well as legal actions meant to silence them.
4. How have the authorities responded to peaceful protests over the years?
President Serzh Sargsyan's second term in office, which began in 2013, has been marked by increasing civic activism, which has in turn been suppressed by the police and other state bodies. Citizens’ protests have mostly been related to various issues of public or social significance, particularly transportation and electricity price hikes, the introduction of a mandatory funded pension system, the dismantling and destruction of cultural monuments and environmental issues.
On 2 December 2013, the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Armenia, a large number of citizens held protests in Yerevan, the capital, against Armenia joining the Eurasian Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union. The police dispersed the protests using violence and apprehended 110 peaceful protesters, who were kept in police stations for eight hours without access to legal assistance.
The summer of 2015 was marked by the so-called ‘Electric Yerevan’ protests against the hike in electricity prices, which lasted almost two weeks. On 23 June 2015 at 5am, the police used water cannons to disperse a peaceful sit-in on Baghramyan Avenue. Using physical violence, the police apprehended around 240 protesters and attacked 21 journalists, damaging their equipment. Following the police violence, the number of sit-in participants dramatically rose, but at the end of June 2015 protesters split up as some of them obeyed police warnings and moved to Liberty Square. The number of sit-in participants on Baghramyan Avenue gradually decreased, and on 6 July 2015 the police eventually dispersed the demonstration. Criminal proceedings were initiated, against both protesters and police officers that used violence against them. Four police officers faced charges for using violence against journalists, but none has so far been held liable for the violence.
In July 2016, following the Sasna Tsrer incident, a series of mass protests was held in Khorenatsi Street and Liberty Square in Yerevan, and the police again used violence against the demonstrators. Hundreds of people were illegally apprehended and the protests were brutally dispersed through excessive force. According to official data, between 17 July and 4 August 2016, 775 people were arrested. On 20 and 29 July 2016 police used unprecedented violence against protesters; as a result, several protesters and journalists received serious bodily injuries. For the first time in the entire history of the Republic of Armenia, protesters were violently taken to the Police Internal Troops barracks and illegally deprived of their freedom. Many people compared this with the situation in Chile in 1973 when dictator Augusto Pinochet kept people captive in a football stadium.
As a rule, no police officer that uses violence against protesters or violates their rights in any way are held accountable, while protesters are liable for administrative and criminal offences. In this regard, it should be noted that in 2012 a Police Disciplinary Commission was created with a provision allowing for the inclusion of representatives from five CSOs. The Disciplinary Commission’s membership and procedures were decided by the government. However, through a decree issued on 31 March 2016, the government handed this power over to the Chief of Police. This change may lead to a conflict of interests and to a further reduction of the Commission’s independence.
5. Have any civil society freedoms been restricted around the 2017 elections?
The new draft Electoral Code resulting from the constitutional amendments first became available on 22 February 2016 on the official website of the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters), in English. Its Armenian version was posted on the Armenian government’s website no sooner than 3 March 2016.
Unlike what had happened with the draft constitutional amendments and the initial draft of the Electoral Code, which had been prepared within a narrow pro-government circle, wider participation was ensured during the further amendment of the Electoral Code. At the suggestion of Levon Zurabyan, a deputy with an opposition party, the Armenian National Congress, negotiations on the draft Electoral Code started between the ruling party, the political opposition and civil society in a 4+4+4 format. As a result, the Electoral Code included a number of recommendations, mostly of an administrative nature, put forward by the opposition and civil society. However, the authorities made no concessions on issues of political significance or that would affect the distribution of power in the parliament to be formed. It should be noted that civil society members took part in the negotiations only at the initial stage and refused to sign the agreements that were eventually reached by the government and the opposition.
The Electoral Code adopted in May 2016 imposed significant restrictions on observers and mass media representatives. In particular, the Code gave precinct electoral commissions the right to set a maximum number of observers and mass media representatives allowed at a polling station. The Code set a requirement for election observation organisations to have had a provision on human rights and democracy in their statutory goals for at least the past year and imposed an accreditation requirement for mass media, allowing for only a limited number of representatives. As a result, a media outlet may have a maximum of 50 representatives throughout the country. The new Electoral Code also stipulates that commission members may remove observers, mass media representatives and proxies from a polling station by a vote.
It is noteworthy that the Electoral Code considers CSOs as the main entities engaged in civic oversight and particularly in electoral observation, but it gives them no right to appeal against the actions or inactions of electoral commissions, or election results, or to file any other complaints.
The Code extended the voting population, as the right to vote was granted to persons who have committed crimes of minor and medium gravity and have served their sentences, and to persons doing military study abroad; however, the rest of the approximately 450,000 to 500,000 Armenian nationals living abroad were not granted the opportunity to vote.
As a result of amendments passed a few months later, the Electoral Code also provided for the publication of signed voter lists, something that the opposition and civil society had been demanding for years. Citizens were given the right to file an application for voter impersonation cases, although the Armenian Criminal Code included an article on false statements regarding such applications. According to the Central Electoral Commission’s report, only one person filed an application on voter impersonation in the context of the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017. Among other reasons, this might have been due to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, though it is widely held that the number of cases of multiple voting or voter impersonation during the elections was not considerable, and the authorities mostly distorted the election through the abuse of administrative resources and vote-buying.
During the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017 and the Yerevan City Council elections of 14 May 2017, widespread abuses were identified that took the form of fake observation. The Central Electoral Commission accredited around 28,000 observers from 49 organisations to observe the National Assembly elections. The overwhelming majority of those observers acted at polling stations mostly as proxies representing the interests of the Republican Party or the Tsarukyan Bloc, which came second in the election.
6. What needs to change for the quality of democracy to improve in Armenia?
First, more protection of labour rights is needed in both the government and business sectors, where rights are not protected. This was explicitly revealed during the recent elections. At the same time, the independence of the business sector and the protection of their rights from the ruling elites should be ensured as well.
The second important issue is judicial independence from executive power. Control of the judiciary is the main tool that the government uses to reinforce impunity, and this is an obstacle for the effective protection of citizens and civil society groups.