With just three full days of campaigning left, the battle lines are deepening in Armenia's presidential race, as two members of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, one member of the party's parliamentary faction, and five members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation have voiced support for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Ter-Petrosian is widely seen as the leading opposition figure in the nine-candidate field. The first round of voting to see who succeeds incumbent Robert Kocharian will take place on February 19.
Given the party's past history with Ter-Petrosian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) members' decision came as a particular surprise. During the ex-president's 1991-1998 tenure, members of the party commonly known as Dashnaks were subjected to political harassment and jailed before the party was finally banned in 1994. (Kocharian lifted the ban in 1998). The party's current presidential candidate, Vahan Hovhannisian, spent three years in prison under Ter-Petrosian.
Those thowing their support behind Ter-Petrosian, including Manvel Avetisian, Garush Araskhanian, Koryun Malkhasian and Eghishe Nalbandian, were identified as rank-and-file members of the ARF from the Aragatsotn region.
On February 11, the party released a statement that news of their defection was misinformation and that the group did not support Ter-Petrosian. The five, however, contradicted the claim the next day in the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, a newspaper whose editor-in-chief, Nikol Pashinyan, is a senior Ter-Petrosian supporter.
An appeal by two imprisoned leaders of a Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans' movement to support Ter-Petrosian motivated their decision, the group stated in the paper. Zhirair Sefilian and Vardan Malkhasian, who had called for stopping the return of territories surrounding Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, were imprisoned in late 2005 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
Commenting to EurasiaNet, Spartak Seyranian, spokesperson for the ARF leadership, said that the five men would probably be expelled from the party. Seyranian speculated that their decision was prompted by appeals by Vardan Malkhasian, a former ARF member. Koryun Malkhasian is a relative of Malkhasian, Seyranian stated.
None of the five ARF members could be reached for comment.
A connection with Karabakh also comes with the defection of one Republican Party of Armenia member to the Ter-Petrosian campaign.
Sasun Mikayelian, chairman of the non-governmental organization Temptation of the Soul, a union of Karabakh war veterans, and a former member of the Republican Party's council, announced on February 11 that he would back Ter-Petrosian rather than party leader Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Confusingly, in December 2007 Mikayelian had declared the opposite. Mikayelian had earlier indicated frustration with what he said was the arrest of two war veteran friends following a January clash with Ter-Petrosian supporters in the town of Talin. "We are standing with them," he said, local media reported.
Parliamentarian Hakob Hakobyan, a businessman, has also sided with Ter-Petrosian, leaving the Republican Party on February 11. On the following day, he was named the target of an investigation by the prosecutor general's office for alleged tax evasion. On February 12, Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepyan claimed that Hakobyan had not paid taxes on a resort he owns. The business brings in roughly $17,000 per month, the prosecutor claimed. Hakobyan, as a member of parliament, holds immunity from prosecution.
Republican Party Deputy Chairman Galust Sahakian has dismissed Hakobyan's and Mikayelian's decision to leave the party as inconsequential. "These two [individuals] are of no importance and are not worth paying attention to," he said.
Myasnik Malkhasian, the third individual associated with the Republican Party who has announced support for Ter-Petrosian, is a member of the party's parliamentary faction only. He is the former chairman of the Aragatsotn region's Yerkrapah Volunteer Union, a Karabakh war veterans' group that strongly opposes any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue.
Some 20 opposition parties have now joined the Ter-Petrosian camp. Apart from the Heritage Party, these parties hold no seats in parliament, and have close to no financial muscle or public presence. On February 14, the tiny New Times Party also announced its support.
Meanwhile, one prominent member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, never a Ter-Petrosian fan base, is styling the recently announced coalition between the former president and the popular opposition Heritage Party as "artificial" and "unacceptable." Alleged divisions between the Heritage Party and Ter-Petrosian on Karabakh and the Ottoman Turkey's 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians make the alliance unsustainable, commented Gegham Manukian, chairman of Yerkir TV, a channel controlled by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
Heritage Party parliamentary faction secretary Stepan Safarian, a political analyst, counters that the differences are merely "tactical." Differences on Karabakh, or the tragic events of 1915 could only be on ways to approach the problems, he said. Further suppositions cannot be made, he added, since Ter-Petrosian has not yet elaborated about his future plans on either issue. "Authorities have created a situation in the country where serious problems raise the issue of regime change by means of elections. We see an opportunity in Levon Ter-Petrosian's candidacy," Safarian said.
Meanwhile, some rough spots have begun to surface between Ter-Petrosian and another opposition presidential candidate, Artur Baghdasarian, head of the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party.
Although a potential union between the two was much mooted in recent weeks, a February 14 comment by Orinats Yerkir Deputy Chairperson Heghine Bisharian suggested that the two sides were never as close as earlier reported on reaching an agreement.
Bisharian claimed that reports in the Armenian media that Baghdasarian has an agreement with Sarkisian were "a lie" and were disseminated by outlets that back Ter-Petrosian. "In this case, we can assume just the opposite, that Levon has an agreement with Sarkisian to divide the entire opposition field [of candidates]," she told reporters.
Baghdasarian himself has avoided any commentary about chances that he will support Ter-Petrosian in any form. In a February 14 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Armenian service, he noted that he would "exclude any cooperation" if such statements do not cease. The party announced on February 14 that it will decide on what candidate to back only after a first round of voting.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.