By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Gayane Danielian in Artashat
An opposition leader was stabbed in the back and two of his aides were beaten up on Tuesday as mobs in the southern Armenian town of Artashat disrupted pre-election rallies by two opposition presidential candidates. Opposition campaigners blamed the attacks on President Robert Kocharian, saying that he is intimidating political opponents to ensure his victory in the February 19 elections.
Kocharian, meanwhile, strongly condemned the attacks and ordered an official inquiry into them.
The main victim of the violence was parliament deputy Hayk Babukhanian, a leader of the Union for Constitutional Rights Party (SIM) which supports one of the opposition contenders, Aram Karapetian. Babukhanian was hit with a knife before being hospitalized and undergoing surgery in Yerevan. Doctors said afterwards that his life is not at risk.
Babukhanian and his driver had arrived in Artashat to prepare for Karapetian’s campaign rally on the main town square. According to a local SIM activist, Hrayr Khachatrian, Babukhanian fired a shot in the air from his pistol to scare off a large group of “drunk and drugged youths” that menacingly advanced on them, hurling abuse and telling the oppositionists to leave the town.
Khachatrian said the shot did not hold back the mob as it began to beat all three of them. The driver, Vahan Ghazarian, who was injured in the head, confirmed this version of events.
Karapetian was quick to condemn the incident, laying the blame on Kocharian and government structures striving for his reelection. “This is a state terror that will not lead to good consequences,” he told reporters. “They can not cling to power with such methods.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Artashat was the scene of another ugly incident involving another leading opposition candidate, Vazgen Manukian. His rally there was effectively disrupted by 50 young men whistling and shouting insults. “We like our president and will vote for Robert Kocharian,” said one of them.
“I will definitely become president and punish all the thuggery,” an uncharacteristically furious Manukian told a crowd of some 1,000 people, struggling to finish his speech. “The authorities are in a panic; that is why they are resorting to such actions.”
Manukian and local activists of his National Democratic Union (AZhM) party were eventually forced to cut short the rally after police officers standing nearby refused to intervene and restore order, citing the absence of violence.
“I am outraged by what has happened here,” said one local woman who came to hear the AZhM leader’s speech. “It was definitely organized by the authorities.” One man from a neighboring village claimed that local authorities have decided to prevent the opposition leaders from campaigning in the area after a warm welcome given by local residents to Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian’s most popular challenger.
The attack on Babukhanian occurred in the same place several hours later. In a written statement Kocharian deplored the violence, saying that it “cast shadow” on the election campaign. “I strongly condemn and find unacceptable any attempts to turn the election campaign into brawls and violence,” he said.
“I call on all candidates and their supporters to continue the civilized struggle and not succumb to provocations,” he added.
Kocharian also said that he has ordered law-enforcement agencies to investigate the incident and punish the guilty.
However, the Armenian Police implied in a statement later in the day that Babukhanian himself provoked the attack by firing several shots. It said the attackers simply overpowered him to take away his handgun.
Armenian parliamentarians are legally allowed to carry light weapons for self-defense.
Meanwhile, the chairman of Babukhanian’s SIM, Hrant Khachatrian, charged that the attackers acted on orders from Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, a native of Artashat and a key player in the Kocharian campaign. He said they were led by a notorious mobster known to the locals with his “Zori” nickname.
Abrahamian, who wields considerable economic and political influence in Artashat and the entire Ararat province, has reportedly pledged to ensure Kocharian’s overwhelming victory in the area.
(Photolur photo: Babukhanian in his hospital bed after surgery.)