From the blog of UK Ambassador to Armenia Katherine Leach:

“Welcome to 2013! Over the past couple of weeks, British Ambassadors all around the world have been writing their Annual Review of 2012 for colleagues in London. It’s a good time to reflect on the achievements we are most proud of – and the challenges and opportunities for the coming year.

For us in Yerevan, there were a number of wonderful highlights in 2012:

Watching the brilliant, modern production of Shakespeare’s King John by the Sundukyan Theatre Company, which they took to London as part of the Olympics World Shakespeare Festival.

Meeting Lord Robin Byron, the 13th Lord Byron, who was here on behalf of his illustrious ancestor (who learnt Armenian in Venice) to join the celebration of Yerevan as World Book Capital in April.

celebrating the Queen’s Birthday in the impressive Khanjian hall at Cafesjian. We were joined by an Armenian sailor who, on a Soviet ship, was part of the flotilla of honour which the young Queen attended some 50 years ago.

Watching the Olympics opening ceremony on a big screen in Lovers’ Park with our alumni and friends.

Welcoming David Lidington, Minister for Europe, in September, who had some great upbeat messages about Armenia’s engagement with the EU and our determination to improve our commercial relationship.

Organising our first trade mission for many years in November, with a range of British companies from those with a global presence (e.g. the engineering consultants Mott McDonald) to a specialist jewellery business (Cleave, specialising in honours, insignia and special gifts).

But this wonderful year ended on a note of tragedy, when we heard the very sad news in December that our dear friend, Karine Kazinian, the Armenian Ambassador to London, had passed away unexpectedly following an operation in the States. This was a huge blow. We will miss her very much indeed.

Our aim for 2013 is to build on the work we, together with Karine, started, to maximise every opportunity for collaboration and to promote common interests and values. Having just drawn breath after the Olympics, this year we are taking on the chairmanship of the G8, with the three priorities selected by our Prime Minister: Trade, Tax, and Transparency. It seems to me that those ‘three T’s’ are of great relevance for our work with Armenia and for the strong commercial focus we will continue to have in 2013. More on this in a future blog.

But the first thing on the horizon is the Presidential election on 18 February. I’m pleased to say that the UK will send 25 election observers to join the ODIHR mission. We really welcome President Sargsyan’s commitment to holding Armenia’s best ever election. But it is disappointing that three of the key non-government parties in parliament are neither putting up a candidate of their own nor backing any other. Are these parties not standing because they lack finance, because they lack trust in a fair result, or because they are not really opposition parties as we would normally understand the concept? If they lack finance, is it because potential wealthy backers are concerned about what will happen to their businesses if they back the wrong horse – or because they have not found a way of communicating their message in a way which would inspire donations from the general public? (It’s interesting that, despite predictions to the contrary, President Obama raised more funds than Mitt Romney in 2012, largely thanks to his success in connecting with voters and activists and getting many small donations of under $200). In monitoring the campaign and talking to members of all the parties over the next month, we’ll be doing our best to understand what more could be done to promote a truly vibrant spirit of political competition.

But after over a decade of elections badly marred by fraud, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Armenian authorities in this election is trying to rebuild and win the trust of its people and partners. Will this happen? I very much hope so. Looking from the outside, it seems to me that the following three areas are crucial ones for state authorities to focus on during the election period – and in the follow-up period afterwards.

  •  the voter list. I know there have been commendable efforts by local police and NGOs to check lists and deal with some of the inaccuracies and practices which look open to abuse (e.g. multiple names registered to a garage). But the fact that the list has continued to increase since 1991 when people’s day to day experience tells them that the country has lost population creates unease for the ordinary voter. Thinking about ways to give people confidence in the list – perhaps by requiring an annual re-registering – might be the answer in future. In the meantime, the authorities can make every effort to follow up and investigate precincts where there appear to be unusually high turn-out or vote tabulations showing surprisingly repetitive numbers.
  • the involvement of public servants. It would be great to see strong messages from all senior political figures during the campaign about the importance of impartiality for all public servants (civil servants, teachers, doctors, lawyers, police etc), especially when they are dealing with their colleagues/subordinates, or those members of the public dependent on them (e.g. parents in a school).
  • responding vigorously to complaints. Not all complaints may have sufficient evidence/legal base to result in a criminal charge, but if the authorities can show that they are responding quickly and seriously to concerns raised by citizens, this may have an increasingly preventative/deterrent effect, and will increase the ordinary voter’s confidence that the authorities mean what they say.

We’re really looking forward to the campaign and hope that there will be a real discussion not just of personalities, but also of policies.”