Armenia: Dueling Protests Occur in Yerevan, as President Calls on Opponents to Sober-Up
Yerevan was the scene of competing rallies on February 26. A protest mounted by supporters of opposition presidential hopeful Levon Ter-Petrosian extended into its seventh day, while, only a kilometer away, Serzh Sarkisian, the man declared the winner of the controversial February 19 presidential election, mustered his loyalists in an attempt to promote the legitimacy of the balloting results. The visiting chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could only describe the situation as "complicated."
Ter-Petrosian backers, claiming widespread fraud, are calling for the annulment of the presidential official election results, which handed Sarkisian a slim majority of the ballots cast, or just enough to obviate a run-off against Ter-Petrosian, the second leading vote-getter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The OSCE initially characterized the conduct of the election as a step forward for Armenia's democratization process. At the same time, election monitors noted poor practices in several areas that could have influenced the outcome, especially given the tiny margin by which the run-off was avoided.
Evidently concerned that the Ter-Petrosian protest movement is gaining traction, supporters of Sarkisian, the sitting prime minister and putative president-elect, felt compelled to organize a demonstration of their own. According to some reports, government employees were required to attend. At the rally, Sarkisian sought to play the role of conciliator, a politician who could bring the country back together after the divisive election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We are here to heal the wounds that have opened on the body of our nation after the election," Sarkisian said. "We must overcome the trial; we must make the wounds heal quickly."
The role of bad cop was left to outgoing President Robert Kocharian, who in comments broadcast on Public Television harangued Ter-Petrosian as irresponsible, and warned that his patience with anti-government activity was running out. "No country would tolerate illegal rallies for more than a day. It's time everybody gets sober and realizes no one can come to power via coercive measures," Kocharian stated. The president also called on people "not to become an instrument in the hands of irresponsible politicians. It is not your game. You won't win it, you will only lose and the country will lose."
Despite the presidential words of warning, the ranks of Ter-Petrosian supporters show no signs of breaking. Indeed, pressure seems to be mounting on both sides. On February 25, for example, the leadership of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation issued a statement that denounced the election irregularities. The vote was "guided by varying degrees of abuses. The leading candidates' supporters engaged in rampant, obvious and veiled bribery. [And] in some precincts ballot stuffing and [the use of] brutal force were observed," the statement asserted.
The ARF statement stressed that it was imperative for Armenia to avoid "post-election polarization." Thus, the party leadership opted to acknowledge Sarkisian to be the election winner, and wished him "the best of luck." At the same time, ARF members stated that they had no desire to serve in Sarkisian's cabinet, and called for a thorough, impartial investigation into the election abuses, as well as the creation of an electoral system that "does not allow bribery, the participation of non-political, semi-criminal elements and the use of administrative resources." Under Kocharian, the ARF was part of the governing coalition.
There were several signs that officials are nervous about the strength of the pro-Ter-Petrosian protests. For example, a spokesman for the State Security Service, Karen Ter-Stepanian, accused opposition supporters of conspiring to attempt the armed take-over of Public Television studios, the Russian news website Gazeta.ru reported. The conspirators supposedly wanted to broadcast a Ter-Petrosian statement denouncing the election results.
Meanwhile, government arrests of suspected opponents are continuing. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On February 26, six more high-profile politicians, including Suren Sureniants, a leading member of the political council of the opposition Republic Party, were taken into custody. Sureniants is reportedly accused of violating legislation governing public demonstrations.
Armen Harutiunian, Armenia's ombudsman, has visited the detainees in jail, and has been in contact with 10 opposition activists who are conducting a hunger strike to protest the election results. Harutiunian announced that a task force has been established to monitor developments. "The detained have lawyers," Harutiunian said. "Some of [the] hunger strike[rs] suffer from various types of illnesses, so the necessity for medical help may occur at any time."
The OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilka Kanerva, visited Yerevan on February 26 for a first-hand look at the brewing crisis. Kanerva endorsed the initial findings of the OSCE election monitoring mission, while striving to foster "political dialogue" that can promote "legal solutions" and end the current stand-off. "The post-election period at the moment is quite complicated and the post-election tensions are obvious," he said.
What appears to be the only legal avenue still open to Ter-Petrosian forces is an appeal to the Constitutional Court. Any legal challenge, however, faces several obstacles. For one, the deadline for recounting ballots has passed without the vast majority of ballots being reexamined.
Some cases where the votes were double-checked turned up wide discrepancies with the original results. The most infamous adjustment occurred in ballots cast at electoral district 9/31, where the original total of 709 votes for Sarkisian was reduced to 395. Meanwhile, only 3 of the 120 ballots cast for the ARF candidate Vahan Hovhannisian were properly recorded, with the others mysteriously awarded to Sarkisian. In addition, 50 votes for third-place finisher Artur Baghdasarian were not counted.
Not only the vote itself, but the recount has come under attack by opposition leaders. Baghdasarian, told EurasiaNet that the recount was being manipulated "to mislead the international community."
At a February 26 news conference, a member of the Heritage Party leadership and MP, Zaruhi Postanjian, characterized the recounts collectively as a "false procedure."
"What recount can we talk about, when representatives of candidates were kidnapped and beaten for [whistle-blowing] against [ballot-box] stuffing on Election Day," Postanjian said. "Nothing can be changed by recounting the ballots" that were cast illegally in the first place, he added.
Baghdasarian said that he personally could not place much faith in the Constitutional Court to deliver an impartial verdict in any electoral dispute. "Having the unsuccessful experience of appealing to the Constitutional Court after the parliamentary election 2007, I don't believe we will achieve any result. Everybody knows the court system in the Republic of Armenia is not independent," he said.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.
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