Council of Europe Head Withdraws Karabakh Vote Criticism

YEREVAN (RFE/RL–Noyan Tapan)–Armenian officials said on Monday a visiting senior official from the Council of Europe told them that the organization was wrong to warn that the latest local elections in Nagorno-Karabakh will damage international efforts to settle the conflict with Azerbaijan.

Lord Russell-Johnston–who heads the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE)–was quoted by government sources in Yerevan as saying that he now agrees with the United States’ view that the polls held in Karabakh on Wednesday are "not relevant" to the peace process.

Russell-Johnston was one of the three signatories of a recent Council of Europe statement saying that the elections "cannot be legitimate" in the absence of Karabakh’s Azeri minority which fled the 1991-94 war. It said the ballot–strongly condemned by Azerbaijan–will complicate the search for peace.

According to the Armenian foreign ministry–Russell-Johnston told Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian that the statement was based on a "wrong assessment of the situation." The government’s press service made a similar assertion in a press release on the PACE president’s meeting with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian.

The Karabakh authorities–backed by Armenia–have rejected the Council’s criticism–saying that the elections are part of the democratic process.

In a speech at the Armenian parliament earlier in the day–Russell-Johnston said the Strasbourg-based democracy and human rights watchdog is upset with the lack of progress in Karabakh negotiations and is considering playing a larger role in the peace process. "Perhaps the time is coming that we should be more directly involved–particularly since both countries (Armenia and Azerbaijan) are within our assembly," he said–adding that the conflicting parties must stick to their pledge to find a peaceful solution to the dispute. "I appeal to you and I will appeal to the Azeri leadership to make a new effort in this area."

The questions addressed to the PACE Chairman mainly corrected the statement that he signed regarding the Karabakh elections. The opinion that due to high levels of emigration–elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan can also be considered illegitimate–Lord Johnston responded that–"You can make any kind of speculation on this issue. According to international law–since the regulation has not been found–Nagorno-Karabakh is considered an occupied territory."

Armen Khachatryan–the Speaker of Armenian Parliament pointed out that they will articulate their position regarding the Karabakh elections–however–he emphasized the necessity of the elections. "Armenia as well as the Council of Europe must be pleased with the democratic processes developing in Karabakh."

According to Khachatryan there is another important consequence as well–which is that the Karabakh government must be elected only by democratic elections–in order to be involved in the negotiation processes. He commented that this statement creates apparent preconditions for the announcement of the Council of Europe is inappropriate. Khachatryan concluded that the above mentioned announcement was initiated by only three Council members and not the whole Council.

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