Friday, March 07, 2008

International observer’s first hand account on vote fraud and cover-up in Armenia

For those who gripe about elections in the United States, all one has to do is look around the world and see how truly lucky we are. One recent example is the presidential election in Armenia held February 19. Armenia is a newly independent democracy located in a precarious situation surrounded by enemies in the Southern Caucasus.

The sitting president Robert Kocharian anointed his Prime Minister Serzh Sarkissian to succeed him. The election was to be purely a show. The administration was seen as highly corrupt and it was thought that the common falsification of election results would continue. The opposition candidate was actually Armenia's first president after independence from 1991 to 1998, Levon Ter-Petrossian.

When the first round election ended with an outright victory for Sarkissian with 53% of the vote, the opposition immediately claimed falsification and started protests. After ten days of peaceful protests the police moved in, leading to pitched battles in the streets, machine gun fire ringing out, numerous deaths and injuries and the army, complete with tanks and armored personnel carriers, occupying the capital Yerevan. What made the situation ironic was that Ter-Petrossian's re-election in 1996 was marred by vote fraud, protests and clashes leading to martial law, though not on a scale like what happened March 1.

It is impossible to find out what has actually transpired in Armenia since the crackdown began because Kocharian has created a complete news black out by suspending all freedom of the press and blocking outside news media.

However, the issue that started the conflict has been overlooked: the fraudulent election. I believe that the election was indeed faked. I base this on my first hand account of being an election observer for Kocharian's first election back in 1998, when he was Prime Minister and the government candidate. I am sure things have not changed much since then, except that each year the election fraud is covered up better.

I became an observer through the United States embassy in Yerevan and came under the umbrella of the OSCE observer mission. During the first round of elections I monitored election precincts in the Ararat region (at the time one of the most corrupt regions) and in the second round I was in Yerevan at a regional vote collection center.

Being out in the village precincts during the first round was quite amazing. We were able to spend only about half an hour at each location. Of all the voting places we visited only one seemed to have no problems and it was not even on our list of precincts to visit due to its small size. The rest all had problems of various degrees.

One common theme to our precinct visits was that the issues were always "resolved" instantly. We were like gods that got things fixed, even though we were only observers that could ask questions, lots of them if necessary. The problem, of course, was that as soon as we left things went right back to normal.

There was one polling place with campaign posters on the front door. When the precinct president was confronted he assured me that it was untrue, despite the fact I saw it with my own eyes. He then walked me back outside to prove it: the posters were gone!

Several locations had open voting, where voters were showing their marked ballots in public. Several others had people registering to vote outside their registered locations. Numerous instances of passport photos not being checked were witnessed. Particularly troubling were police officers inside the polling stations, a situation specifically prohibited due to earlier instances of intimidation.

I would always pay a visit to the police at every location, ask how they were doing and if necessary "escort" them to where they belonged. More often than not they were back where they didn't belong by the time we drove off.

At one location voters not on the list but obviously living in the precinct were denied their right to be given a provisional ballot. Only by our timely arrival and insistence on watching the problem be resolved did they get to vote.

Another location had a broken ballot box seal: a voter had fallen on it by accident, nothing funny was going on, of course.

At 8pm the precincts were locked and the vote counting took place. We were in a small village, it was dark, lots of men in dark clothes were standing about and strange music was playing over the loudspeakers. A truly scary feeling, though we knew we were safe. Nonetheless, we had our driver park the car near the door. Without fail, a common theme in Armenian vote counting occurred: the lights went out! I immediately jumped on top of the ballot box, calling out to my partner to make sure we stayed in communication. The lights came on and we continued the count. Upon finishing the count the ballots were packed into a car for the ride to the district collection point. We followed in our car and it was quite obvious they tried to lose us during the trip.

The highlight of the election for me was the second round two weeks later at the regional vote collection center in the Nor Nork region of Yerevan. This is where the actual results protocols are turned in after the counting at the precincts. It was well past midnight before the first results started to arrive. The results protocols were turned in and the ballots stacked to the side. The action started when the opposition observer stated that one of the protocols did not match the results that were announced at the actual precinct. The committee president simply stated that he would investigate and then ordered a break.

An hour later in the hallway I overheard a newcomer announce, "I brought the correct protocols." The only reason I was allowed to hear this is that everyone assumes that a foreigner cannot speak Armenian. In my case, they were mistaken!

As the meeting resumed the committee President announced that the "correct" results had arrived and simply placed the first protocol in his desk. Case closed! Not quite. I asked to see the first, fake, protocol. The president tore it up into the trash and said the matter was over. When I again insisted on seeing it, he blew up in anger and illegally shut down the vote count.

Everyone left the room except for him, his vice-president, me and my fellow observer. After a half hour standoff the vice-president left and brought an elderly cleaning woman who proceeded to dump the trash can and leave. What an opportunity.

I followed the woman out to the hall, took possession of the trash, sorted out the coffee grinds and was able to match together a faked protocol.

That is how I found the greatest physical example of voting fraud in the 1998 Armenian Presidential Election. How much was not discovered is the real enigma. And for 2008 the question remains: how much have the Armenian authorities changed in their holding of "free and fair" elections?

Frank Lavoie is the co-owner of Kafe Europa in Honolulu, which serves traditional Armenian and Russian food and a staffer with Sen. Sam Slom's office.

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