By Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Opposition candidate Vazgen Manukian, campaigning in eastern Armenia on Saturday, said President Robert Kocharian should publicly promise that government employees voting for his challengers “will not be punished” after the February 19 elections.
Manukian added his voice to growing opposition allegations that employees of various government agencies across Armenia are under strong pressure to ensure a strong showing for the incumbent. “Kocharian should either offer such assurances or admit that he is doing such [illegal] things,” the candidate said as he visited areas around the mountainous Lake Sevan.
Opposition activists claim, in particular, that local government officials are instructed by their bosses to attend Kocharian’s campaign rallies. Particularly controversial is the presence of schoolchildren at such gatherings.
Manukian, who is running for president for the third consecutive time, heard such complaints in Chambarak, a town 120 kilometers northeast of Yerevan. Some local residents said scores of children were ordered by their school principals to greet Kocharian when the latter visited the town last week.
In neighboring Vahan village, which is located only a few kilometers from Armenia’s fortified border with Azerbaijan, many also complained of poverty and government neglect. “They keep their government posts with the blood of our children,” said Javad Apresian, an elderly man whose son was killed in fighting with Azerbaijani forces in the early 1990s.
Manukian, who served as defense minister at the time, agreed: “The fruits of our victory ended up in the hands of a bunch of people. This is very unfortunate.”
Throughout the one-day trip Manukian also heard persistent calls for the Armenian opposition to leave only one challenger against Kocharian. “How come there are 11 presidential candidates in a small country like this?” one man in the town of Sevan complained.
“If you don’t unite, you will be beaten one by one,” another Sevan resident told Manukian.
“The opposition parties are not smarter than you,” the opposition leader replied. “You, the people, should decide whom you would like to as a single candidate.”
Kocharian, meanwhile, campaigned in the vine-growing Vayots Dzor province in southeastern Armenia, sampling local wine in villages and promising economic betterment in the even of his reelection. Villages greeted him with folk music and dances. “I will vote for Kocharian because I see real things done by him,” said one of them.
Disaffection with difficult living conditions ran high, however. “There are neither jobs, nor government or money here,” said a local woman.
(RFE/RL photo: Manukian laying a wreath at a war memorial in Vahan village.)