In for the Count: Hrair Balian is a Veteran Rights Activist

By Felix Corley
The Armenian Weekly On-Line

WARSAW, Poland–For Hrair Balian, veteran rights activist and campaigner, election observation is the latest tool in his work of promoting democratization. Since January 1999 he has been head of the elections section of the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the section of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that promotes the “human dimension” of OSCE agreements. His job is to help OSCE governments to improve their electoral legislation and practise by advising on election laws and by monitoring elections.

Lebanese-born Balian’s long involvement in human rights work dates back to the 1980s when, as a lawyer in San Francisco, he took on human rights cases on a pro bono basis. He is perhaps best known in the Armenian community for his work from 1991 to 1995 as executive director of the Covcas Center in Geneva, which monitored the conflicts that erupted in the South Caucasus as the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Nagorno Karabagh conflict figured largely in his work, but he also worked on the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And when the Armenian government under President Levon Ter Petrosian launched its harsh crackdown on the ARF Dashnaktsutiun in 1994, Balian was there to document the consequences.

January 1996 saw a change in venue. Balian headed to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo as director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), arriving immediately after the fighting ended and shortly after the deployment of the international IFOR intervention force. He remained with ICG until May 1998, when he worked for the next six months at the University of California in Berkeley on a book on conflict prevention for the ICG.

His new work is ensuring that the 54 OSCE participating states abide by the commitments they have made to free, fair, accountable, and transparent elections. Despite these OSCE commitments, many governments in the former communist-ruled world continue to manipulate the polls to aid incumbents in their bids to ensure reelection. Turkmenistan–the worst offender in the OSCE–abolished all pretense of democratic choice when parliament nominated incumbent President Saparmurat Niyazov “president for life.”

Election monitoring–made famous by former US President Jimmy Carter– aims to make abuse more difficult by deploying outsiders to track each step of the process. The OSCE deploys some of the largest teams of monitors for Eurasian elections.

“We provide technical assistance to develop democracies, mainly in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans,” explains Balian, “but also in a few Central European states, including Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and even Russia. We have a cycle, providing technical assistance–that is reviewing election laws and recommending improvements, training election administrators, and advising on drawing up voter registers, educating the media, and voter education–and then observing the election itself.” An election observation mission usually works in a country for two months, not just in the capital but in local regions as well, while a full team is deployed for just a short time over the election itself.

“In the Russian presidential elections in March last year, for example, we deployed 12 regional officers from Vladivostok in the East to Kaliningrad in the West, with 20 to 40 long-term observers and experts.
We look deeply into the whole run-up to an election.” As soon as the polling stations close the observation mission produces a preliminary report, with a comprehensive report later.

“The preliminary report is produced the day after the election,” Balian declares. “The short-term observers deployed all over the country four or five days before polling report in overnight. Then a month later we produce a full report, including statistical and qualitative analysis of the whole electoral process and comparison with international standards.”

Balian is mindful of the criticisms levelled at the OSCE after it appeared to give some legitimacy to elections that have not been fully democratic. “Unless our reports state positive developments that have occurred in an electoral process, you’ll lose credibility. The reports contain positive elements and criticism–and we always develop recommendations. We think this has served us well.” He stresses that the OSCE is always working towards improving the electoral process the next time around, not just in handing out criticism.

How does the OSCE try to stop governments maliciously misquoting OSCE verdicts on their elections, highlighting positive elements of election monitors’ reports while suppressing the criticism? Balian sighs. “We see time and again our statements distorted in the press. Of course it is a concern. In Uzbekistan’s parliamentary elections of December 1999 we said that election legislation was improved, but the rest of the twenty pages of our report consisted of criticism–and this was completely ignored. If distortion comes from a government we write to that government to complain.”

The OSCE holds an open press conference the day after a vote and makes a point of distributing its election observation reports as widely as possible to the press and to NGOs, both within a country and abroad, to ensure that its views are accurately known. It translates the reports not just into regional languages, such as Russian, but into the main language of a country as well. “After the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan in the spring, we distributed one thousand copies of the translation of our report within the country.”

Balian is adamant, though: “The OSCE never gives credibility to ‘dodgy’ elections. The fact of the presence and deployment of an observation mission does not in itself lend credibility. A critical statement and report will follow if necessary. We have done this many times.”

With only limited funds, the OSCE cannot monitor every election. For it to decide to send a mission, which requires an invitation from the host government, Balian declares categorically that conditions “at least on paper” must be right. “The second condition is that there must be a genuine choice.” The OSCE refused to send a mission to monitor the Uzbek presidential election in January 2000. “There was no choice. The second candidate publicly voted for the incumbent, Islam Karimov!”

Balian himself–who estimates he is on the road 60 percent of the time- -visits about 90 percent of the elections his teams are monitoring.
“However, in October 1999 we had four elections in just one weekend! I had to monitor them from Warsaw, though I visited each of the countries in the run-up to polling day.”

There are two exceptions to Balian’s practice of trying to attend each national election where the OSCE is involved. “When there were elections in Armenia I deliberately stayed out. As an Armenian I would have been seen as biased one way or another. I did not even want to give the appearance of bias. It was my proposal to the OSCE management and this was respected. The same holds for Azerbaijan–I have stayed out.”

This does not mean he never gets involved in the election process in Armenia or Azerbaijan. May 2000 saw him visiting Yerevan and Baku (his first visit to the Azerbaijani capital) to discuss election-related issues. Nor has he had any personal difficulties working with Azerbaijani officials visiting for meetings in Warsaw. “Outside of the election period I have worked with the Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities with no problems.” He adds that he has visited Turkey on OSCE business and had no problems either. “I wandered the streets there.”

As an unrecognized entity, the OSCE would not monitor Karabagh’s elections (just as it would not monitor elections in other similar entities like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transdniester). But has there been pressure to do so? “No, no one has asked us to monitor elections in Karabagh,” Balian declares. “In 1999 the Abkhaz authorities asked us to monitor the elections in Abkhazia, but we refused. We monitor elections in the OSCE participating states.”

Does Balian still get involved in Armenian issues? “I am not currently involved in politics in general, let alone in Armenian politics.”

[Felix Corley is the editor of Keston News Service. His articles about the absence since the start of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict of the formerly prominent Armenian population of Baku, the desecration of Armenians graves in the cemeteries of Baku, and Azerbaijan’s attempts to fabricate a Christian past have been recently published in the Armenian Weekly.]