Friday, February 22, 2008
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Resigns, Defections to Ter-Petrosian Continue
By By Marianna Grigoryan and Gayane Abrahamyan: 02/22/08

In a surprise move, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker and presidential candidate Vahan Hovhannisian has resigned from office out of frustration with alleged election violations in Armenia’s recent presidential elections. In a separate development, Armenia’s deputy prosecutor general and seven parliamentarians have joined the protest movement led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian to contest the results of the February 19 presidential vote.

Hovhannisian, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) – Dashnaktsutiun party, noted in a statement released late on February 22 that “[v]arious election violations, the widespread distribution of election bribes, gross violence and ballot-box stuffing at certain polling stations have . . . deepened the suspicions and distrust in society, which is increasing from election to election.”

He added, however, that his “personal decision” was made “independently” from an upcoming review by the ARF leadership of  “reports being received from all regions, all polling stations.”

The party has refrained from further comment. ARF parliamentarian Armen Rustamian told EurasiaNet that the party’s leadership structure, known as the Supreme Body, will discuss the situation to decide on what to do next, and the issue of the four ARF ministers (education, agriculture, labor and healthcare) currently in the government.

Some observers think that a ballot recount at one Yerevan polling station is the main reason for Hovhannisian’s anger.  The recount reportedly showed that only three votes out of 120 cast for Hovhannisian were actually registered; the rest were given to Prime Minister  Sarksian, according to the Central Election Commission. After the recount, the station tally for Sarkisian, already declared the election's preliminary winner with 52.8 percent of the national vote, fell from 709 to 395 votes.

The polling station’s election commission chairman, Eduard Aghajanian, has been arrested for his alleged role in the scandal. The recount will continue until February 24. Final election results are scheduled to be released on February 26.

“By this, Hovhannisian shows that he does not put up with the situation,” commented political analyst Yervand Bozoian.  “Even only in one precinct, a recount of votes showed that he lost quite a number of votes. Perhaps they will demand a second round of elections.”

Meanwhile, Hovhannisian has called for tranquility and restraint, effectively urging party supporters not to join Ter-Petrosian’s Yerevan rallies. The system which allowed Ter-Petrosian to defeat Vazgen Manukian in Armenia’s 1996 presidential vote  -- an election critics routinely describe as rigged – set in motion “a self-improving machine of election violations which cannot be stopped to this day,” he said.

But the surprises continued.

At a February 22 rally in front of Yerevan’s Opera House, the third in as many days, Deputy Prosecutor General Gagik Jhangirian declared his support for Ter-Petrosian.

“I have seen and dealt with many elections, but the scale of the fraud, violence, beatings, intimidations that were committed during this election never happened before,” Jhangirian told the crowd. “After all, we must establish rule of law in this land. The law mustn’t work only depending on who it applies to.”       

Until 2003, Jhangirian was in charge of the investigation into the 1999 parliamentary shootings of several top government figures. He promised Ter-Petrosian supporters that he would complete the investigation if they stand by the ex-president. 

“I urge you and ask you that you adhere to your choice. Levon Ter-Petrosian cannot do anything alone. Each of us must stand by his vote,” said Jhangirian.

The prosecutor-general’s office has since petitioned President Robert Kocharian to remove Jhangirian from office, citing a prohibition on government officials being involved in politics, the pro-opposition A1+ website reported.

Meanwhile, four parliamentarians from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (Manvel Ghazarian, Hrant Grigorian, Seyran Saroian, and  Armen Mkhitarian) and two parliamentarians (Karo Karapetian, Tigran Stepanian), from the Prosperous Armenia Party, a member of Armenia’s governing coalition, have also signed on with Ter-Petrosian. An independent parliamentarian, Rustam Gasparian, has also joined the group.

Despite earlier reports that they would do so, two deputy defense ministers, General Manvel Grigorian and General Gagik Melkonian, did not address protestors on Friday. Ter-Petrosian announced on February 21 that the pair had decided to support his movement.

Repeating earlier party denials, senior Republican Party parliamentarian Armen Ashotian asserted to EurasiaNet that Ter-Petrosian’s claims have “no prospect and are made solely to stir people’s emotions.” Defense Ministry spokesperson Colonel Seyran Shakhsuvarian has also denied Ter-Petrosian’s statement.

Yet, despite the generals’ no-show, the deputy chairman of a Nagorno Karabakh war veterans group headed by General Grigorian, maintains that the statements about the general’s support for the ex-president stand.

“If most of the Yerkrapah Union of Volunteers is next to the people, supports justice, then where can General Manvel Grigorian be?” asked Myasnik Malkhasian. The defense ministry’s denials carry little weight, he added.  “Seyran Shakhsuvarian is not Manvel Grigorian. If Manvel Grigorian does not deny it himself, does Seyran Shakhsuvaryan have the right to deny it instead of him?”

Commenting on the political crossovers, Ter-Petrosian told supporters that “our friends whom we did not know are revealing their real face. This is a period of reaching new heights and of abasements.”

One newly rediscovered “friend” is Raffi Hovannisian, the US-born leader of the opposition Heritage Party who served as foreign minister under Ter-Petrosian from 1991 until 1992.

Hovannisian’s appearance at Friday’s rally was his first since aligning his party with Ter-Petrosian shortly before the election, and sparked thunderous applause. 

“Consider that Heritage has become one with the people,” Hovannisian declared to EurasiaNet, in describing his party’s new alliance. “I think that where there is law, right and firmness and a citizen’s will, it is possible to achieve success in a peaceful, lawful way.”

The protests, for now, show little sign of dying down. A crowd in the tens of thousands gathered again on Friday afternoon to listen to opposition speakers and to dance music. Many had spent the entire night in the square, part of a round-the-clock vigil that began on February 21 with the erection of a scattered collection of tents.

The mood has proven at times festive, and police presence has been minimal. The strongest show of force on Friday occurred when a march of thousands, mostly young people, proceeded past the prime minister’s office en route to the Central Election Commission. Impassive riot police surrounded the building’s front , and the marchers, carrying Armenian flags and shouting for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s removal, passed on without incident.

So far, the government response to the protests has been minimal. Police will be sent in to put down the demonstration only if the rallies turn violent, officials have said. 

Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan and Gayane Abrahamyan are reporters for the weekly in Yerevan. Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor, added reporting to this story.