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By Hrach Melkumian

Artashes Geghamian, one of the most popular Armenian politicians, vowed Saturday not to withdraw his presidential candidacy in support of any other opposition leader as he won a predictable and enthusiastic endorsement from his National Unity party.

The widely anticipated move all but ruled out the possibility of National Unity and 15 leading opposition parties, which form a loose grouping, fielding a single candidate for the presidential election of February 19.

“I am already conscious of one simple truth. If I back down, if I don’t go to the end -- even at the cost of my life -- I will not have a right to live in Armenia,” Geghamian declared in an emotional speech at his party’s congress.

Speaking to journalists afterwards, he expressed his unwillingness to support any opposition candidate except himself, a position he has implicitly voiced before. “I will agree to concessions only with National Unity’s approval,” the ambitious leader said. “We respect all of the 15 parties, but we have even greater respect for the collective will and opinion of our party members.”

The 16-party coalition was formed a month ago in what was seen as a concerted opposition effort to scuttle President Robert Kocharian’s reelection. Its leaders pledged to coordinate their pre-election efforts and try to put forward a joint presidential candidate. Geghamian’s hopes of winning the coalition’s endorsement of his presidential ambitions have been dimmed by other opposition heavyweights that suspect him of secretly cooperating with the authorities. At least three major opposition groups -- the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), the National Democratic Union (AZhM) and Hanrapetutyun (Republic) -- have serious misgivings about him.

Leaders of the allied parties attended the National Unity congress but were conspicuously absent from the conference room when Geghamian was nominated for the presidency to the rapturous applause from several hundred delegates. They all played down the nomination. HZhK leader Stepan Demirchian, another major presidential candidate, declined a comment, saying only that the opposition coalition still hopes to agree on a joint candidate.

Shavarsh Kocharian, leader of the smaller National Unity Party, said Geghamian is “just a candidate to be a joint candidate.” Hanrapetutyun chairman Albert Bazeyan agreed, saying that several opposition contenders could pull out of the race at the last minute.

In his speech, Geghamian blasted the Armenian media for continuing to speculate about his alleged links with Kocharian’s administration. To drive home his point, he renewed strong verbal attacks on the authorities and their economic track record.

Some local commentators view Geghamian as the ruling regime’s Trojan horse inside the opposition camp who is tasked with facilitating Kocharian’s electoral victory.
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