A major Armenian opposition party, Orinats Yerkir, is fighting a presidential accusation of "treason" following the disclosure that the party's leader encouraged the European Union to criticize the government. The party claims that the government's response is part of a "smear campaign" aimed at preventing Orinats Yerkir from making a strong showing in upcoming parliamentary elections.
The statements were apparently made -- and secretly recorded -- during a February lunch meeting between former parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who heads Orinats Yerkir, and a senior British embassy official, later identified as Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Hyde. A copy of the recording was provided to the pro-government newspaper Golos Armenii (Voice of Armenia), which has since published excerpts.
The newspaper account quoted Baghdasarian as urging the EU to issue a statement censuring Armenian authorities over their handling of the May 12 parliamentary vote. He also allegedly charged that the governing Republican Party of Armenia plans to resort to large-scale fraud to retain its influential position in parliament.
Hyde reportedly countered that Armenian authorities have so far been careful not to commit the kind of "blatant violations" that would force the EU to issue such a statement. "I suppose they are smarter and wiser than we are, and many Europeans realize this," Hyde said, according to Golos Armenii. Hyde was also reported to have complained that only the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland, among the EU countries with diplomatic missions in Yerevan, are committed to promoting free elections.
For some local commentators, the wire-tapping scandal is an indication that President Robert Kocharian's administration is worried that Orinats Yerkir will garner strong electoral support. Citing unnamed government sources, the pro-opposition newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan reported on April 28 that the authorities are intent on preventing Orinats Yerkir from winning any parliament seats. That, if true, will only increase the likelihood of the party's involvement in post-election street protests planned by other, more radical opposition groups.
Both Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law), and the British Embassy swiftly condemned the clandestine recording, illegal under Armenian law, but stopped short of explicitly refuting its reported contents. "We do not propose to comment in detail on the gross misrepresentation of a conversation, details of which appear to have been obtained through dishonest and deplorable means," the Embassy said in an April 26 statement. The Embassy stressed that British diplomats regularly meet with a broad range of Armenian politicians in order to have "as complete and objective a view as possible of the political process," rather than to support "any specific political party."
Golos Armenii has dismissed the embassy explanation as "diplomatic hypocrisy," going on to claim that the United Kingdom helped to organize the 2003 and 2005 anti-government revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and is "seriously interested" in stirring up similar post-election developments in Armenia. The Russian-language paper, which has posted audio of the conversation on its website, also echoed Kocharian's blistering attack on Baghdasarian, accusing him of "selling out" his country.
"It's hard to imagine that the former chairman of the National Assembly could fall so low," Kocharian told university students in Yerevan on April 27. "For me, this is a real manifestation of treason. That manifestation is all the more ugly given that it was done at his own initiative." Voting for Orinats Yerkir will now be tantamount to having no sense of "patriotism and national dignity," he charged.
"Traitors are those who rig elections and disgrace the fatherland," hit back Baghdasarian the same day while on a campaign swing through the southern Ararat region.The bitter exchange was a far cry from the relationship that existed between the two men before Orinats Yerkir was forced to quit Armenia's governing coalition in 2006. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kocharian went to great lengths to have Baghdasarian elected parliamentary speaker and give his party three ministerial portfolios after it finished second in the last general elections held in May 2003. The move fueled speculation that Kocharian would designate the ambitious lawyer, now 38, as his successor after the Armenian president completes his second and final term of office in 2008. However, their personal rapport subsequently deteriorated due to Orinats Yerkir's growing criticism of government policies and overtures to the Armenian opposition.
The party, which claims to have more than 100,000 members, is now seen as one of the main opposition contenders for the upcoming polls. Its leader's populist appeal and its well-organized grassroots structures provide much of its strength. Baghdasarian has also aroused more interest among Western governments than any other Armenian opposition politician with his calls for Armenia's eventual membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as his conciliatory line on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and relations with Turkey. In his wire-tapped conversation, Baghdasarian boasted that he gets phone calls from the United States Embassy in Yerevan "every other day."
The extraordinary treason accusations seem to have had little impact on Orinats Yerkir's hardcore supporters, however. More than a thousand of them gave Baghdasarian a hero's welcome as he campaigned in Yerevan's southern Shengavit District on May 1. "The whole thing has only made us close ranks," said Asya Sahakian, a young woman attending the campaign rally.
"If Baghdasarian is a traitor, why don't they arrest him?" asked Azat, a middle-aged unemployed man. "They won't do that because the whole thing is fabricated."
Baghdasarian made only an indirect brief reference to the scandal. "No lies, no slander can stop us. We must go forward, we must win, we must change our country," the ex-speaker told the mostly female crowd.
"Government-controlled media have unleashed dirty, black propaganda against us," said another Orinats Yerkir leader, Mher Shahgeldian. "[It's] propaganda that is having the opposite [from intended] effect -- only increasing popular support for Orinats Yerkir."
The virtual absence of credible opinion polls in Armenia makes it extremely difficult to gauge the veracity of such statements. But the scandal will most probably change nothing for the expected large number of Armenians who do not plan to vote on May 12. Commented one elderly woman selling cheap clothing in a Shengavit market: "I don't trust any of the politicians because they all think about their families and fight for government posts, rather than for poor people like us."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.