Countries at the Crossroads: A Survey of Democratic Governance



Population: 3,326,448

GDP: $12.13 billion
GNI per capita: $790


Civil Liberties: 3.96
Rule of Law: 3.26
Anticorruption and Transparency: 2.75
Accountability and Public Voice: 2.98

(scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7
representing strongest performance)


Armenia is entering its 13th year of independence without a democratic
political system, the adequate rule of law, and an independent judiciary
capable of challenging government decisions that infringe on human rights.
Successive governments of this South Caucasus nation have failed to hold
elections recognized as free and fair by the international community,
resorting to vote-rigging and other forms of electoral fraud in order to
cling to power.

The current Armenian administration, led by President Robert Kocharian,
highlighted this reality in 2003 when it faced a barrage of domestic and
international criticism for its handling of presidential and parliamentary
elections that were marred by widespread irregularities. The two ballots,
which resulted in a second term in office and a loyal legislature for
Kocharian, followed what has been a familiar pattern in post-Soviet Armenia,
with the opposition re*fusing to accept the official results and staging
street protests. The resulting political standoff puts a large question mark
over the country's long-term political stability and democratic future. It
also highlights the grim fact that regime change through elections is
practically impossible in Armenia, where electoral fraud seems to have
become a political culture.

The lack of democracy has had negative repercussions for other areas of
life, making nonsense of the Armenian authorities' stated commitment to the
rule of law. Its lack is particularly visible in economic life, where
government connections and influence are vital. Some of the most lucrative
forms of economic activity are monopolized by Kocharian's inner circle. The
country's overall investment climate thus leaves much to be desired, with
many businesspeople complaining about harassment by tax authorities and
unfair competition.

All of this is a breeding ground for endemic government corruption. Faced
with mounting Western pressure to tackle the problem, the Kocharian
administration was due to unveil a long-awaited anti-corruption plan by the
end of 2003. However, few people expected it to lead to concrete action.

The Armenian authorities' human rights record is hardly better. The regime
has often violated constitutional provisions guaranteeing a broad range of
individual liberties and rights. The arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up
charges of scores of opposition supporters during the 2003 presidential race
was a vivid example of such violations. It offered further proof that
Armenian courts rarely make decisions contradicting the executive's wishes.

Mistreatment of detainees by law-enforcement officials is the most
wide*spread form of human rights abuse in Armenia, according to such
international watchdogs as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The
government has made no visible efforts to tackle police torture. The
practice continued unabated even after Armenia's hard-won accession to the
Council of Europe in 2001. In a serious blow to freedom of expression,
membership in that organization also did not prevent the authorities from
shutting down Armenia's main independent TV station in 2002.

The events of 2003 demonstrated that only a government elected through a
free and fair process can be accountable to Armenia's citizens, leading to
the creation of a state based on democratic principles.


Armenia's post-Soviet constitution reads, "A person may be detained only by
court order and in accordance with legally prescribed procedures." It also
stipulates that "No one may be subjected to torture and to treatment and
punishment that are cruel or degrading to the individual's dignity." This
provision rings hollow given the continuing widespread mistreatment of
criminal suspects in custody. Armenian police and other law-enforcement
agencies routinely extract confessions and other testimony through torture
and intimidation - a problem regularly highlighted by local and
interna*tional human rights organizations. "Reports indicated that
ill-treatment by law-enforcement agencies remained commonplace," Amnesty
International said in an annual report on Armenia issued in May 2003.

Police brutality, which dates back to Soviet times, remains widespread
despite parliament's ratification in 2002 of the European Convention for the
Prevention of Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights in line
with Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe. The ratifications paved
the way for the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture to inspect
Armenian detention facilities and for Armenian citizens to file complaints
with the European Court of Human Rights. Still, the situation is unlikely to
improve markedly as long as law-enforcement officers involved in human
rights abuses remain unpunished. None of them had reportedly been held
accountable as of September 2003. Besides, as Human Rights Watch noted in a
November 2002 report, many victims of police torture do not file complaints
for fear of retribution.

The constitutional safeguards against arbitrary arrest became irrelevant
during and in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election held in
two rounds on February 19 and March 5, 2003. Between 200 and 400 supporters
of Kocharian's main opposition challenger, Stepan Demirchian, were arrested
by the police for attending unsanctioned demonstrations against the alleged
falsification of the vote results in the incumbent's favor.1 More than 100
of them were sentenced to between 3 and 15 days in jail for allegedly
disrupting public order during the peaceful protests. Opposition
demonstrators were denied access to lawyers and faced closed trials in
breach of the Armenian constitution.

The crackdown was denounced by human rights groups and international
organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Even Armenia's Constitutional
Court added its voice to the criticism, instructing the justice council, a
Kocharian-controlled body overseeing the judiciary, to sanction those judges
who handed down the controversial rulings. However, the council refused to
comply with the order, dismissing it as unconstitutional.2

The election crackdown was carried out under Armenia's Soviet-era Code of
Administrative Offenses, which failed to guarantee detainees access to
counsel and was exploited by the authorities even before the troubled
elections. In a September 2002 resolution, the Council of Europe's
Parliamentary Assembly demanded that Yerevan abolish the code. Human Rights
Watch likewise noted that Armenia's "administrative court system appears to
be little more than a 'pocket court' for police."3

Punishment for more serious offenses is set by the post-Soviet criminal
code, which was passed by the Armenian parliament in April 2003. The new
code abolished the death penalty in Armenia. Separate legislation sets the
maximum period of pre-trial detention at one year. Despite its fairly low
crime rate, Armenia has seen a number of politically motivated killings
since independence. The most high-profile of them occurred in October 1999
when five gunmen burst into parliament, killing its speaker, Karen
Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, and six other officials.
Although the gunmen were arrested and put on trial, many circumstances of
the massacre remain unknown. Some relatives of the assassinated officials
continued to accuse Kocharian of a cover-up throughout 2003.

The Armenian constitution guarantees the equality of genders, and there are
no laws discriminating against women. Nevertheless, Armenia is a
conservative male-dominated society where few women hold senior government
posts. While women are better represented in lower-level positions in both
the public and private sectors, in general, they were impacted even more
than men by the post-Soviet de-industrialization. Domestic violence is a
major problem, according to some local women's groups, but its precise scale
has yet to be determined. What is clear is that women are the main victims
of human trafficking from or through Armenia. In 2002 the U.S. State
Department listed Armenia among those nations of the world that were doing
little to counter the practice. This embarrassing criticism led the Armenian
authorities to make what the State Department subsequently described as
"significant efforts" to stop the forced transfer of human beings.
Washington removed Armenia from the blacklist in June 2003.

The constitution also gives equal rights and protection to ethnic
minorities, which make up a tiny percentage of the country's population.
While the minorities, such as Russians, Yezidi Kurds, and Assyrians, rarely
report instances of overt discrimination, they often complain about
difficulties with receiving education in their native languages. This
problem was highlighted in May 2002 by a Council of Europe advisory
committee monitoring protection of national minorities in member countries.
In a report, the body noted that legal provisions protecting minorities are
insufficient in Armenia.4 Armenia had a sizable ethnic Azerbaijani minority
until the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1988. Virtually all
Azerbaijanis were forced to leave the country by 1990, just as hundreds of
thousands of ethnic Armenians .ed Azerbaijan at about the same time. The
unresolved conflict has so far made peaceful co-existence of the two ethnic
groups impossible.

The situation is similar with regard to freedom of religion, which is
up*held by the law but is not always protected by the state. There are 50
officially registered religious groups. The largest of them - the Armenian
Apostolic Church, to which over 90 percent of the population belongs -
enjoys a privileged, semi-official status and advocates restrictions on
activities of other, non-traditional faiths viewed with suspicion by the
government. One of them, Jehovah's Witnesses, continued to be denied
registration as of September 2003 because of its strong opposition to
compulsory military service. As of late 2002, 23 male members of Jehovah's
Witnesses remained in prison for draft evasion.5 The authorities were
expected to legalize the sect by the end of 2003 after passing a law on
alternative service. State interference in religious activities is otherwise

The state also largely respects citizens' constitutional right to freedom of
association, as evidenced by the existence of more than 100 political
parties and around 3,000 other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
However, only a small percentage of these are actually active or viable.
Some of them occasionally engage in policy advocacy. Their main obstacle is
government indifference, which precludes their serious impact on public
policy. Several trade unions unite public sector workers. The much larger
private sector workforce is not unionized at all due to very high
unemployment and poor government protection of workers' rights. Citizens are
not forced to belong to any organization. Many state bureaucrats, however,
have been compelled to campaign for incumbent presidents and ruling parties
during elections. Members of opposition parties have been brie.y arrested
and ill-treated on occasion.


Armenia's political leadership must take real steps to eliminate the
widespread ill-treatment in custody of criminal suspects and stop us*ing
torture for fabricating criminal cases against political opponents.
Law-enforcement agencies have always resorted to the practice and will not
stop doing so without an explicit political order from above. Thus,
government commitment alone could make a significant difference. It is also
essential that the security offi.cials guilty of human rights abuses face
punishment. Jail terms for such crimes must be lengthier. Armenian courts,
for their part, must start addressing defendants' claims of physical abuse.
Reform of Armenia's long-outdated code of administrative of*fenses, which
has proved to be a powerful tool for political repression, is urgently
needed. As the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly pointed out in
September 2002, the authorities should draw up a new code from scratch and
avoid enforcing controversial provisions of the existing one in the interim.

RULE OF LAW - 3.26

Armenia's judicial system is riddled with corruption and mistrusted by the
population. It has undergone substantial structural changes since the Soviet
collapse but still remains susceptible to government influence. The current
Armenian constitution, enacted in 1995, introduced a three-tier structure of
courts of general jurisdiction topped by the Court of Appeals. It also
created a separate nine-member Constitutional Court empowered to overturn
government decisions, impeach the president, and invalidate elections. On
paper, these judicial bodies are protected against state interference, with
Article 97 of the constitution stipulating that the Armenian judges "shall
be independent and may only be subject to the law." However, this provision
is at odds with another constitutional clause that states bluntly that it is
the president of the republic who is "the guarantor of the independence of
the judicial bodies."

The president has the exclusive authority to appoint and dismiss all judges
except five members of the Constitutional Court installed by parliament.
This seems to be the main reason why Armenian courts rarely make decisions
contrary to the wishes of the head of state as well as government and
law-enforcement bodies. As Human Rights Watch noted in its 2002 report on
Armenia, "In general, judges continued to display subservience to executive
authorities, and did not, as a rule, challenge the procuracy or police."In a
study conducted in 2002, the American Bar Association's Central and East
European Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) rated Armenia negatively on 18 out of
the 30 indicators making up its judicial reform index, a tool to assess the
rule of law in emerging democracies.6 Among the factors found to be negative
were the selection, appointment, and dismissal of judges and the courts'
susceptibility to improper influence. The ABA/CEELI study, based on
interviews with Armenian judicial officials and legal experts, concluded
that "fear of the executive branch's powers to discipline and terminate
judges has impacted the development of the judiciary's independence as noted
by respondents."7

The extent of government influence on the judiciary is demonstratedby the
low percentage of court rulings overturned by higher courts and the very
small number of acquittals in criminal cases. In 2000, for example, only 563
of 2,266 such appeals were successful.8 More than 90 percent of verdicts
handed down by lower courts were not appealed at all. The public seems to
demonstrate greater trust in the fairness of verdicts on civil and business
disputes, as evidenced by a substantial increase in such cases considered by
the courts in recent years.

Another serious problem is bribery of judges at various levels, which is
believed to be widespread. It appears to have continued unabated despite
recent years' dramatic increase in judges' salaries set by a law. Along with
the president of the republic, judges are now the highest-paid state
officials in Armenia, receiving the equivalent of between $400 and $700 a
month. But state funding for the courts (most of them lacking proper
accommodation and other facilities) is otherwise insufficient. The
administration of justice is further hampered by what is widely seen as a
lack of professionalism among many judges. Armenian law only requires them
to have higher legal education and at least three years of professional
experience as a lawyer. They are not required to have practiced before a
tribunal before taking the bench. Also, the legally defined procedure for
the selection of would-be judges, administered by the ministry of justice,
is open to discretionary decisions.

Corruption is even more rampant in the police and the procuracy. The
law-enforcement agencies, also highly dependent on the executive, often
continue to be guided by the Soviet-era presumption of guilt, despite the
constitutional provision that a criminal suspect "shall be presumed innocent
until proven guilty." Innocent citizens are practically unprotected against
mistreatment in custody, while those who commit crimes may have cases
against them dropped in exchange for a kickback. Not surprisingly,
prosecution of serving senior government officials for abuse of power and
other wrongdoing is extremely rare in Armenia.

Ruling regimes have always used the police, prosecutors, and the military
for carrying out and covering up vote falsifications. Nobody, for example,
was jailed in connection with the widespread fraud reported during the
presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003, although the authorities -
in response to international criticism - claimed to have opened a number of
relevant criminal cases. The entire security apparatus is tightly controlled
by President Kocharian, who appoints the heads of the police service and the
national security service (former KGB), the defense minister, and the top
brass of the Armenian armed forces. Parliament and even the cabinet of
ministers have little control over their activities. Top security officials,
notably Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, are known to maintain close ties
with wealthy businesspeople who often owe their fortunes to privileged
treatment by the state. The so-called oligarchs enjoy a de facto monopoly on
some lucrative sectors of the Armenian economy.

All Armenian citizens are theoretically equal under the law, regardless of
their ethnicity, religion, race, gender, or political orientation. The
constitution guarantees their right to private property, which can be taken
away by the state "only under exceptional circumstances, with due process of
law, and prior equivalent compensations." This provision is largely
respected in practice. The law also obligates the state to provide criminal
suspects with legal counsel free of charge if they cannot afford to hire
one. Government-appointed attorneys are often accused of collaborating with
the prosecution to the detriment of their clients, however. Court trials in
Armenia, though open to the public and media, are still not perceived to be
fair, especially when government interests are involved. The persisting
problems with the rule of law show that Armenia still has a long way to go
before putting in place an independent and competent judiciary.


Armenia's parliament should be given the authority to confirm or block
judicial appointments made by the president; the selection of judges should
not depend on the will of a single person. This will require corresponding
changes to the constitution. The president should be stripped of his
constitutional right to sack virtually all judges. Armenia should enhance
judicial oversight of criminal investigations conducted by police and
prosecutors, and the courts must stop rubber-stamping practically all
pretrial detentions requested by the prosecutors. Legal amendments are
needed to bring the system of criminal justice, still based on Soviet-era
practices, closer to Western standards. The government must work harder to
combat the rampant corruption in the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies.


Government corruption, a leftover from the Soviet era, is one of the
fundamental problems facing Armenia. It has engulfed virtually all spheres
of life, ranging from business to education, and is a serious obstacle to
the country's development. Despite repeated assurances to the domestic
public and Western donors, successive Armenian governments failed to reduce
the magnitude of the problem between 1993 and 2003. Many senior government
officials are themselves mired in bribery, nepotism, and other corrupt
practices and are therefore uninterested in the rule of law.

This might explain why the authorities did not unveil, as of September 2003,
their promised comprehensive plan to combat graft. The World Bank provided a
$345,000 grant for that purpose in 2001, and a team of government experts
has since been working on the document. Officials from the World Bank and
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) insisted on its publication before the
end of 2003.

Armenian officials, meanwhile, claim to have already taken some important
anti-corruption measures, such as the simplification of registration and
licensing of businesses, the setting up of a state procurements agency, and
the passage of new laws on civil service and financial disclosure. However,
the new legislation has not yet made much difference. For one thing, the law
on financial disclosure, effective from 2002, proved largely meaningless as
many ministers and other high-level officials grossly underreported their
and their close relatives' conspicuous wealth. The law does not empower tax
authorities to check the accuracy of the officials' income declarations.

The Armenian government has eased cumbersome bureaucratic regulations for
businesses in recent years but has yet to address their number-one
grievance: harassment from corrupt tax and customs officials. For example,
the Armenian Union of Traders, a pressure group representing hundreds of
small and medium-size businesses, complained at a conference in January 2003
that its members continue to be forced to pay profit and other taxes in
advance of their operating revenues.9 Tax officials frequently resort to
this illegal practice to meet their quarterly revenue targets.

State interference in the economy also takes the form of privileged
government treatment for certain businesses, some of which enjoy an
effective monopoly on the highly lucrative imports of fuel, grain, sugar,
and alcohol to Armenia. Such treatment is facilitated by the absence of
legislation regulating conflicts of interest. Many government officials own,
both indirectly and openly, private firms or sponsor companies controlled by
their cronies.

More important, government officials are rarely sacked or prosecuted on
corruption charges, even though prosecutors claim to open several dozen such
cases each year. Most high-profile corruption cases have targeted members of
former President Levon Ter-Petrosian's administration who are at odds with
the current regime. The July 2003 arrest on bribery charges of the deputy
commander of Armenia's border troops, Colonel Vahan Mkhitarian, and the
ensuing dismissal of his boss, General Levon Stepanian, were an exception to
the rule; media speculation linked the case to an internal rivalry in the
national security service. No other high-ranking official reportedly faced
such accusations in 2002-2003. Whistle-blowing is virtually nonexistent
among civil servants, who continue to fear losing their jobs. Also
contributing to the problem is a lack of in-depth investigative reports in
the local media exposing government corruption.

The lack of results in the authorities' stated anti-corruption drive was
acknowledged by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), one of the
three pro-Kocharian parties making up the coalition government formed as a
result of the May 2003 parliamentary elections. Its leaders tried
unsuccessfully in June to get Kocharian to form a powerful government body
tasked with combating graft. Only in September 2003 did Kocharian appoint a
special anti-corruption adviser affiliated with the ARF.

The latest annual global survey conducted by Transparency International (TI)
does suggest a certain drop in government corruption in Armenia, rating it
among the least corrupt former Soviet republics. Armenia was ranked 78th out
of 133 countries in TI's 2003 rankings. Armenia scored 3.0 out of a highest
score of 10.0 in TI's Corruption Perception Index, up from 2.5 points in

Nevertheless, the existing mechanisms for government transparency are far
from effective. The collection of budgetary revenues by the tax and customs
authorities, for instance, is not audited by other government agencies. The
finance ministry, however, has a special unit monitoring government spending
as specified by the state budget. The annual budget undergoes detailed
discussion in the cabinet of ministers and especially parliament, which also
scrutinizes its subsequent implementation by the executive. The budget's key
indicators are usually agreed upon with the World Bank, the IMF, and other
donors. Still, despite the existence of a law on state procurementthat
mandates open bidding, the awarding of government contracts in Armenia is
not transparent. As for foreign assistance to Armenia, much comes from the
United States and the European Union, which administer its distribution

Armenia's most important oversight body is the audit chamber of parliament.
Although the chamber has repeatedly criticized the government's use of
public finances and external loans, it lacks the legal and administrative
muscle to affect government policies. Its parliament-appointed head, Gagik
Voskanian, publicly complained about this in June 2003. His complaints were
echoed by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who argued that an
effective fight against corruption requires a greater role for the

As of September 2003 there was no freedom of information legislation in
Armenia, and the government withheld many important facts from the public.
Still, all government decisions and parliament acts were published in
official bulletins and were accessible to citizens.


The authorities must fight corruption in earnest by investigating and
punishing corrupt government officials regardless of their position and
political connections. All necessary laws are in place, but they need to be
enforced. Any anticorruption drive must encompass the law-enforcement
agencies, where graft is rampant and particularly damaging to public
confidence. Relevant Armenian laws should be amended to limit their
corruption-driven interference in business. Parliament should pass stronger
legislation to combat illegal practices, including a law on conflict of
interest. Also, the existing law on financial disclosure must be amended so
as to allow for the verification of officials' financial statements. The
audit chamber should be given more powers to inspect any government agency.
Its critical findings should automatically entail parliamentary and/or
criminal inquiries. Government bodies should become more open to the media.
A freedom of information law should be passed.


No presidential or parliamentary elections held in Armenia since
independence have been judged free and fair by the international community
due to chronic vote irregularities perpetrated by ruling regimes. The
country's only rotation of power, which occurred in 1998, was the result of
government infighting, not the expression of popular will. The outcome of
the sole relatively clean vote, the legislative elections of May 1999, was
effectively nullified by the October 1999 parliament killings. The
assassinated, charismatic leaders, Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Sarkisian,
co-headed the Unity bloc, which swept to a landslide victory in the polls.
Their deaths eventually led to the break-up of the alliance and radically
changed the balance of forces in parliament in Kocharian's favor.

Armenia has thus a long way to go before becoming a democracy, and 2003 saw
a poignant confirmation of this fact. The year began with the dramatic
presidential ballot, the official results of which gave victory to the
incumbent Kocharian. But his main opposition challenger, Stepan Demirchian
(son of Karen Demirchian), refused to concede defeat, accusing Kocharian of
rigging the vote. Those charges were given weight by a monitoring mission
from the OSCE and the Council of Europe, which cited "serious irregularities
in many polling stations" and concluded that the two-round elections "fell
short of international standards for democratic elections."11 The
international observers singled out ballot-box stuffing by Kocharian
supporters as the most frequent form of electoral fraud. The United States
expressed its "deep disappointment" with the Kocharian administration's
handling of the vote. "Armenia's leadership missed an important opportunity
to advance democratization by holding a credible election," concluded a
State Department release.12 This election was hardly better than the
previous, fraudulent presidential ballots held in 1998 and 1996, and in some
respects (for example ballot-stuffing and opposition arrests) it was even

It was a similar story in the parliamentary elections held on May 25, with
official results favoring pro-Kocharian candidates and the opposition
disputing them. In a report issued on May 26, observers from the OSCE and
the Council of Europe found that while the polls "marked improvement" over
the presidential race, they were nonetheless undemocratic "in several key
areas." The observers singled out "serious fraud" in the counting of

The official winners of the elections were the three largest parties
supporting Kocharian: the ARF and the Republican and Country of Law parties.
Together with a large group of government-connected nonpartisan deputies,
they hold the bulk of the 131 seats in Armenia's national assembly. Only 16
lawmakers represent the main opposition group, Demirchian's Justice
alliance, which claims to have been robbed of electoral victory. Nine
deputies are affiliated with another opposition group, the National Unity

"In the Republic of Armenia power lies with the people," reads the
constitution. But in reality, Armenian citizens have been denied their
constitutional right to elect and change their government. Despite the
abundance of political parties (more than 100 were officially registered as
of December 2002), no democratic rotation of power has taken place among
them. Only a handful of parties, allied with incumbent presidents, have been
represented in the executive.

Armenia's electoral code guarantees equal opportunities for all parties, and
in general they have been free to hold campaign rallies and other gatherings
around the country. Even though the code entitles them to free airtime on
state television and radio, pro-establishment parties enjoy much easier
access to electronic media. The code's greatest shortcoming is that it
places all electoral commissions under the control of the president and his
loyal parties. Opposition groups are thus unable to thwart fraud during the
voting and counting processes. The Armenian authorities, responding to
international criticism, pledged to reform the election legislation in the
summer of 2003, although as of September this had not occurred. It is highly
doubtful that they will agree to give up control over the crucial election

Also, the opposition cannot rival pro-establishment parties and individual
candidates in terms of election campaign spending. Armenian law imposes a
$100,000 ceiling on campaign expenditures for a single party or electoral
bloc, and obligates them to disclose their sources of revenue. But few
comply with the requirement. According to the Armenian affiliate of TI the
three pro-Kocharian parties breached the spending limits during the
parliamentary election campaign. Another grave problem is vote buying, which
was widespread in the May 2003 elections. Vote bribes paid by wealthy
government-connected candidates seem to have decided election outcomes in
many of the country's 56 individual constituencies.

Opposition candidates also often complain that many Armenian civil servants
are forced to illegally campaign for incumbent presidents and governing
parties. This was particularly obvious during the presidential race, several
months after the entry into force in October 2002 of a law on civil service,
which protects state bureaucrats against arbitrary dismissal and mandates
their selection on a competitive basis. Officials said that some 845 people
were chosen to work for various government agencies as of September 1,
2002.14 But critics argue that the body administering job competitions is
appointed by the president and can therefore not make objective decisions.

The lack of democratization manifests itself in the independent civic sector
as well. Thousands of NGOs are registered with the justice ministry, but few
of them operate in reality, let alone have any impact on government policy.
The most successful in that regard have been several associations uniting
owners of small and medium-size businesses. They have succeeded in the past
in lobbying parliament to block some of the government initiatives
toughening taxation rules. In April 2003, local media associations likewise
managed to persuade parliament to reject a government bill on mass media
that many local journalists regard as a threat to press freedom.

Freedom of expression suffered a serious blow in April 2002 when the
authorities shut down the A1+ independent television company. The move was
the result of a tender for broadcasting frequencies administered by a
Kocharian-appointed commission. It was condemned by Armenian media
watchdogs, international organizations, and the United States. The closure
of A1+ was the main reason why in 2003 Freedom House downgraded the status
of the Armenian media from "partly free" to "not free." Faced with the
strong outcry, the authorities reportedly promised the Council of Europe
that A1+ would be allowed back on air in time for the 2003 elections,
something that did not happen. Furthermore, in July 2003 the state
commission on broadcasting rejected A1+'s bid for a new frequency, provoking
a fresh storm of domestic and international protests.

A1+ was the only major Armenian broadcaster often critical of Kocharian. The
dozens of other private TV channels, mainly owned by pro-government
businesspeople, rarely air any criticism of the president and are often
biased against his opponents. Armenia's print media are far more free and
diverse, with several pro-opposition dailies regularly subjecting the regime
to harsh attacks. However, it is not uncommon for their journalists to
exercise self-censorship when covering security agencies or powerful
business oligarchs.

There were few reported cases of libel suits filed by state officials
against journalists during the period covered by this report. Defamation of
character is a criminal offense in Armenia punishable by up to three years
in prison. The corresponding clauses in the new criminal code "seriously
threaten freedom of expression" and run counter to European standards,
according to the OSCE and senior Western diplomats in Yerevan.15 In a joint
June 2003 letter to parliament speaker Baghdasarian, they urged Armenia to
decriminalize libel. Baghdasarian pledged to reform libel legislation but
stopped short of promising its decriminalization.


Armenia's government must be committed to free and fair elections. In
general, Armenia has positive electoral laws in place, but they need to be
followed. Rulers must stop falsifying elections both directly and through
their cronies. They must finally accept the possibility of losing power as a
result of elections, something taken for granted in any established
democracy. The ruling regime must stop using civil servants and government
resources for its election campaigns. The authorities must give up their de
facto control over electronic media by amending the broadcasting legislation
and lifting the ban on A1+. Libel should be regulated by civil, not criminal

Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.

1 Emil Danielyan, "Armenia's Top Court Deplores Arrests of Opposition
Supporters," RFE/RL Armenia Report (Prague and Washington, D.C.: Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty),, 17 April 2003.
2 Karine Kalantarian, "Judicial Body Refuses to Probe Mass Arrests of
Opposition Supporters," RFE/RL Armenia Report, 25 April 2003.
3 World Report 2003 (New York: Human Rights Watch),
4 "Opinion on Armenia" (Strasbourg: Council of Europe's Secretariat of the
Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, 2002),
5 Armenia, International Religious Freedom Report 2002 (Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Department
of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, October 2002),
6 "Judicial Reform Index for Armenia" (Chicago and Washington, D.C.:
American Bar Association, Central and East European Law Initiative, April
7 Ibid., 36.
8 Shakeh Avoyan, "Armenian Courts of Appeal Uphold Most Rulings," RFE/RL
Armenia Report, 30 July 2001.
9 Shakeh Avoyan, "Small Businesses Denounce Government Harassment," RFE/RL
Report, 13 January 2003.
10 Hrach Melkumian, "New Speaker Calls for Tighter Parliamentary Oversight
of Government,"
RFE/RL Armenia Report, 23 June 2003.
11 Emil Danielyan and Shakeh Avoyan, "International Observers Slam Armenian
Run-Off," RFE/RL Armenia Report, 6 March 2003.
12 Emil Danielyan, "U.S. 'Deeply Disappointed' with Armenian Vote," RFE/RL
Armenia Report, 7 March 2003.
13 Emil Danielyan, "Western Observers Criticize Armenian Polls," RFE/RL
Armenia Report, 26 May 2003.
14 Karine Kalantarian, "Top Armenian Bureaucrats 'Less Competent than Their
RFE/RL Armenia Report, 3 September 2003.
15 Emil Danielyan, "Western Diplomats Tell Yerevan to Decriminalize Libel,"
RFE/RL Armenia Report, 20 June 2003.