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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Futile Pursuit of Armenia's Election Vermin

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Election observers are the roach traps of democracy: They catch only the least clever of election fraudsters, while the rest of the pests burrow into the woodwork. During last week's presidential election in Armenia, it was the vermin who were calling the shots.

However, the people at the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, who monitor elections in this part of the world, don't frame it in quite those terms for their volunteer observers. They inspire the hope that election observers are participating in development of the rule of law by exposing tears in the fragile fabric of democracy.

In a training session prior to the election, the OSCE warned observers to be wary of a variety of possible tricks, such as voters trying to obtain multiple ballots by taping different passport numbers inside their own passports, or by using falsified identification cards. Be suspicious, they said, if proxies or observers are prevented from peering through the transparent sides of the spanking-new ballot boxes -- oversized plastic storage bins, provided by international donors.

Armed with these tips, and an intimate knowledge of the minutiae of Armenian electoral laws, my observation partner and I set off into rural Armenia last Wednesday to boldly uphold democracy. We toured dilapidated schools and cultural centers that had been transformed into makeshift polling stations. We watched precinct officials check IDs, hand out ballots, and sit by ballot boxes. The peeling walls were adorned with posters -- also paid for by donor organizations -- instructing voters to mark their ballot with a "V."

Like an ambulance driver who wishes his fellow man well, but still relishes a good power saw accident once in a while, I was hungering for some sexy electoral transgressions. I wanted to witness thuggish men weighed down by gold chains buying votes with crisp Ben Franklins from the heated seats of their Mercedes. I hoped to catch a precinct chairman surreptitiously drawing smiley faces on ballots marked for opposition candidates, to render them invalid. I wanted to see blood on the ballot box.

But we witnessed nothing more than the equivalent of a scraped knee. Some polling stations didn't post sample ballots, and a few times more than one person crowded into a polling booth -- usually when a babushka needed help reading a ballot. Dark men dressed in dark clothing (that is much of the male population of Armenia) loitered outside polling stations -- but, after all, there wasn't much else to do on a public holiday.

Of course, only the cockroaches who have inhaled too much bug spray misbehave while election observers are, well, observing. Our arrival at a polling station was telegraphed well in advance. The monster white Chevy Blazer with diplomatic plates and OSCE signs in the front and back windows that carried us through rural Armenia had all the subtlety of a circus coming to town.

I later listened jealously to other observers who were fortunate enough to witness actual stuffed ballot boxes, or commission chairmen who didn't correctly unfold each ballot during the counting process. One observation group watched as a team of TV reporters was manhandled out of a polling station. For the most part, though, the cockroaches took their cue and exited stage left when observers entered the neighborhood.

The dirty secret of election monitoring is that it's far easier to manipulate vote counts farther up the ladder -- that is, by fudging a few figures when regional totals are tallied -- than through crude maneuverings at the local level. The slow cockroaches that make election observers feel important are most likely anxious freelancers eager to prove their mettle to the local party bosses. Why risk stuffing an extra few hundred votes here or there, when it's so much easier to use bad math later on in the process?

Indeed. "Armenian voting generally smooth, but vote count and overall process fall short in key respects," squawked the headline of the OSCE's early post-election press release. The incumbent president, Robert Kocharyan, missed winning an absolute majority by two-tenths of a percent.

In the days following the election, Armenian opposition parties held demonstrations in downtown Yerevan, attended by an estimated 1 percent of the country's population, to protest violations. Opposition members were rightfully upset at democracy being derailed, though that's not to say they would be any more angelic than the incumbent if given the chance. The president, meanwhile, was regrouping, and probably wishing that he hadn't been pressured into letting the election go into a second round.

There was never really any question that the election was going to be anything but dirty. Kocharyan leveraged all available public resources for his campaign, including using the defense minister -- one of the shadier characters in Armenian politics -- as his campaign manager.

Plant managers were instructed to encourage their underlings to vote for Kocharyan; doctors were ordered to cure their sick patients to ensure that they would be sufficiently hale to trek to the polls; and schools were closed so that teachers could take their pupils to Kocharyan rallies. In early February, the pro-presidential majority in the Armenian parliament boycotted regular sessions, so that they could not be used as a forum to attack the government. The country's main independent television station conveniently lost its license last year, so television coverage was heavily skewed toward Kocharyan. One study shows that 93 percent of public TV coverage of Kocharyan was positive or neutral, compared with approximately equal proportions of negative and positive coverage for the opposition -- when they made it onto the air at all.

After the vote, the Central Election Commission blamed the freshly fallen snow for illegal delays in announcing the final results of the election. It didn't explain, though, why results from outlying parts of Armenia were tabulated more quickly than those from downtown Yerevan.

Preliminary results showed Kocharyan's share of the vote hovering perilously close to the 50 percent level that would avert a second round runoff. Kocharyan had not disguised his desire to win in the first round, claiming that it would minimize the adverse effects on the Armenian economy -- thus putting the cart of saving some cash before the horse of democracy. Announcement of the final result was likely delayed as Kocharyan and Co. tried to gauge whether they could survive the uproar that would result if they declared victory outright.

Not that anyone cares. Armenia, after all, is home to less than 3 million people, and has a GDP equivalent to roughly one-tenth the market capitalization of Russian oil major Yukos. The country's noisy diaspora is more focused on granting humanitarian aid than on putting the groundwork in place for sustainable growth via bona fide democracy and investment. Last week's election represents just another victory for the pests in the CIS.

Kim Iskyan, a freelance journalist and consultant living in Yerevan, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.