By Karine Kalantarian in Stepanavan
A microphone set for an open-air rally in the northern Armenian town of Stepanavan was stolen on Thursday minutes before it was due to be used by Stepan Demirchian, a leading opposition presidential candidate.
The bizarre theft occurred on the main town square in the presence of some 200 people awaiting Demirchian who is campaigning in the area for the February 19 elections. The leader of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), who is especially popular in rural areas, had to deliver a speech to the crowd through a hand-held megaphone.
“The government puppets are again exposing their face,” Demirchian said, accusing the authorities of attempting to disrupt his campaign. He said the incident proves opposition allegations that various government agencies have been instructed to ensure the incumbent President Robert Kocharian’s reelection at any cost.
Some of his supporters blamed the theft on the local mayor and police chief. But none claimed to have seen how the microphone disappeared.
Touring some of the surrounding villages, Demirchian enjoyed a red-carpet reception from local residents, many of whom continue to revere his late father and Armenia’s Soviet-era ruler, Karen Demirchian. In one place, the HZhK leader was greeted with folk music and dances ending in the ceremonial slaughter of a sheep -- an ancient tradition of welcoming prominent guests.
Skepticism about the freedom and fairness of the presidential contest ran high among the locals, however. “We have never seen honest elections,” said one middle-aged woman in the village of Gargar. “They always steal our votes in Yerevan.”
There were also those who said they do not trust any of the 11 registered candidates. As one man who refused to disclose his name put it: “Whoever came here never made any difference in our village. I don’t believe any of those 130 [parliament deputies] and their president.”