Sunday, February 17, 2008
As Campaign Ends, Ter-Petrosian Claims Victory
Gayane Abrahamyan: 02/17/08

As thousands of supporters yelled "Victory!," former President Levon Ter-Petrosian wrapped up his election campaign on February 16 with a massive rally in downtown Yerevan that was rich with parting jibes at the current government, yet indicative of ongoing divisions within the opposition itself.

Police estimated that about 30,000 people took part in the rally outside the Armenian capital's Opera House, although organizers insist that the turnout exceeded 250,000. Police presence was minimal, with a handful of senior officers and plainclothes detectives surveying the scene or following a march through the city center.

Yerevan onlookers responded with raised fists of support (an image also seen on Ter-Petrosian campaign flyers), amused smiles or looks of blank indifference as thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters, chanting slogans, subsequently paraded through the capital, badly snarling traffic.

While the campaign's anger at Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian still held center stage - Ter-Petrosian supporters erupted in a chorus of boos and whistles as their march passed under a large campaign billboard for the premier - feuding within the opposition camp itself produced the biggest surprise of the event.

Speaking to the crowd, a man who introduced himself as a member of rival opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party, claimed that 1,000 Baghdasarian supporters have switched camps and signed on with Ter-Petrosian.

"Baghdasarian will call this treason, but the true treason would be the decision not to join this powerful popular movement," declared the man, who gave his name as Armen Ghazarian.

Ter-Petrosian has charged that Baghdasarian, a former parliamentary speaker with whom he failed to build a campaign alliance, has committed "treason" and covertly collaborated with Prime Minister Sarkisian on the campaign. The Baghdasarian camp has dismissed the charges as ridiculous.

In an interview with EurasiaNet, Baghdasarian himself, however, called the rally speaker's claim a lie, and asserted that he does not know an Armen Ghazarian. No Orinats Yerkir supporters have gone over to the Ter-Petrosian camp, he insisted.

"We have prepared a statement, have appealed to the prosecutor general's office to bring that Armen Ghazarian to responsibility for disseminating false information," Baghdasarian said.

While Ter-Petrosian's feud with Baghdasarian shows no sign of quieting down, protestors also maintain that the government is taking steps to block their rallies.

Demonstrators from the provinces interviewed by EurasiaNet complained that regular buses and minibuses had been banned from traveling to Yerevan. As a result, they said, they had been forced to find private cars or taxis to come to the former president's rally.

One protestor from Abovyan, a small town close to Yerevan where Sarkisian was scheduled to hold a rally on February 16, argued that the alleged absence of public transportation was no accident. "This was done on purpose not only to reduce the flow of the people to this rally, but also to increase the number of participants in Serzh Sarkisian's rally," commented Artur Avtandilian.

A gaggle of men from Ijevan, a town 137 kilometers from Yerevan, repeated the claim, adding that traffic police wrote down the license plate numbers and names of drivers of all cars entering the city. "They stopped us every time, they threatened us, "one man said.

A Yerevan bus terminal employee said that snowy weather accounted for the cancellation of some bus routes, but said that privately owned mini-bus operators make their own decisions. Similar claims were made by opposition supporters during the 2007 parliamentary elections.

The alleged traffic hindrances, however, did little to dampen Ter-Petrosian's apparent certainty of victory at the polls on February 19. He began his speech by congratulating the crowd gathered in front of Yerevan's Opera House with a vote already won.

"This is a friendly talk before the victory," he said. "The kleptocracy [referring to Prime Minister Sarkisian and outgoing President Robert Kocharian] has already been defeated and the people have won."

A range of opposition figures -- 2003 presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian of the People's Party of Armenia, former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian of the Republic Party, Heritage Party Deputy Chairman Vardan Khachatrian and parliamentary member Sasun Mikayelian, who recently left the ruling Republican Party to join Ter-Petrosian's campaign -- also spoke at the two-hour-long rally.

The presence of renowned actor Yervand Manarian, opera singers and conservatory professors underlined the connections between Armenia's intellectual community and the former president, a scholar of Armenian and Middle Eastern history.

Speaking in the modulated tones that have contributed to his public reputation as a skilled orator, the former president termed the general election campaign efficiently run," although it did not develop the way I'd like."

"I wish the campaign was more civilized. But we were forced to give harsh assessments to these authorities," he said in reference to Prime Minister Sarkisian and President Kocharian, who served as defense/interior minister and prime minister, respectively, under Ter-Petrosian's 1991-1998 presidency.

"The authorities' panic has increased so much that they go to extremes," he claimed.

The comment was taken as a reference to the distribution of four DVDs in Yerevan over the past week that claim, among other things, that Ter-Petrosian is of Turkish descent and that he is a member of the Masons.

One video reviews controversial murders under Ter-Petrosian's administration, and implies connections between the ex-president and the 1999 parliamentary assassinations. The film also reviews the story of former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian, a Ter-Petrosian cabinet member who fled Armenia in 2000 after being charged with murder.

The film focusing on the 1999 shootings has been shown on H2 TV channel, with the voiceover that it will show "what a moral person the first president is and what are his goals for Armenia."

Ter-Petrosian campaign spokesperson Arman Musinian has said that the campaign doesn't plan to respond to the DVDs. "The contents are so ungrounded and ridiculous that we are not even going to comment on that rubbish," Musinian said.

The films' creators are unknown. Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesperson for Prime Minister Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia, says the party has no knowledge about the DVDs.

"We don't need to shoot any film of this kind, because people know a lot about the former president and remember the days of his rule," Sharmazanov said.

One anecdote reportedly making the rounds in Yerevan urges voters to buy electricity generators before Ter-Petrosian is elected and their prices go up - a reference to the massive electricity shortages Armenia endured in the early 1990s under his presidency. The candidate himself attributes the problem to the general breakdown of infrastructure following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"They've forgotten the past, they've forgotten what it was like to live without electricity," said one man from Etchmiadzin, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in reference to the rally participants. Other citizens take issue with restrictions on media and opposition parties that occurred under the former president. Claiming that he is "[d]angerous for civilization," 30 protestors have been living in tents outside Ter-Petrosian's campaign headquarters for the past four days.

While recent opinion polls show Ter-Petrosian with only a sliver of the vote (supporters counter that the surveys are biased in favor of the government), political analysts say that they have difficulty predicting the vote's outcome and reaction to the results.

"[T]he first president's entrance [into the presidential race] changed the rules of the game, made the situation interesting and dynamic, and unpredictable at the same time," commented Caucasus Media Institute Director Alexander Iskandaryan.

What few observers question is that a battle of some sort is in the making. "He will fight till the end," noted Mikayel Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Association of Armenia. "The authorities will also go all the way, and the people will have to choose whom to keep."

Editor's Note: Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan. EurasiaNet Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story.