By Shakeh Avoyan
Opposition candidates in Armenia’s presidential elections are brushing aside security risks to conduct their campaigns without armed bodyguards, unable to afford them or unwilling to use services offered by the police. President Robert Kocharian is the only contender with a trained security service.
His main opponents said on Thursday they are not seeking armed protection despite the possibility of assassination attempts highlighted by the recent killing of the chief of Armenia’s state television, Tigran Naghdalian.
“The risk is high. But if you don’t take risks, you shouldn’t be in politics,” said Vazgen Manukian, leader of the National Democratic Union (AZhM) party. Manukian said he had state-appointed bodyguards only when he served as defense minister in 1992-1993.
Another top opposition leader, Artashes Geghamian, said his security is ensured by friends and political supporters “armed only with convictions.”
An unofficial “security service” is believed to exist inside the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) whose leader, Stepan Demirchian, is also a top presidential contender. Demirchian said his unarmed security guards have been “more careful” since the December 28 killing of Naghdalian. “Everyone, not just politicians, is unprotected in Armenia. Their security is not guaranteed by the authorities,” he said.
Despite boasting a fairly low crime rate, Armenia has seen numerous high-profile assassinations of political figures and senior government officials over the past decade. The most shocking of such crimes occurred on October 27, 1999 when gunmen broke into the country’s parliament, killing its speaker Karen Demirchian (Stepan’s father), Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials. Neither Demirchian nor Sarkisian had professional bodyguards.
According to the deputy chief of the Armenian police, Hovannes Varian, there are no private security agencies in Armenia and only the state can provide public figures with armed guards. He said there is a special police unit providing such services for a hefty fee.
This may be the reason why opposition politicians’ are reluctant to turn to the law-enforcement agencies for protection. Or, as Communist Party leader Vladimir Darpinian put it, they feel that an armed security service is not an absolute safeguard against possible attempts on their life.