By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Shakeh Avoyan and Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
President Robert Kocharian faced Wednesday domestic and international pressure to punish those who provoked Tuesday’s attacks on opposition activists in southern Armenia and avert more violence ahead of the presidential elections.
Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian, major opposition presidential candidates whose separate campaign rallies were disrupted in Artashat by a group of aggressive youths, accused the authorities of trying to intimidate their opponents.
“Their aim is to intimidate the people and show force as it’s already clear that there is no other way Kocharian can get reelected,” Manukian charged at a news conference in Yerevan. He said all opposition contenders will hold an emergency meeting late in the evening to discuss the situation.
Karapetian, campaigning in another southern province, Armavir, told supporters that he is undaunted by the beating of his campaign manager Hayk Babukhanian and his two companions. “If they attack us with words, we will respond with words. If they attack us with force, we will respond with force,” he said.
Babukhanian was stabbed and hospitalized shortly before Karapetian’s scheduled arrival at Artashat’s main square. Witnesses said he was knifed in the back after firing a shot into the air from his pistol in a bid to scare off the attackers. The incident occurred several hours after apparently the same group of men disrupted Manukian’s campaign rally.
“Robert Kocharian is personally to blame for those events,” Manukian said . “If he is not involved in that, he must immediately sack the Police chief and the governor [of Ararat province].”
Kocharian ordered the law-enforcement authorities to investigate the violence. But no arrests or sackings were made as of late Wednesday. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Armenian Police effectively blamed the attack on Babukhanian, saying it was provoked by his shots.
However, the chairman of Babukhanian’s Union for Constitutional Rights party, Hrant Khachatrian, said that the victim used his licensed handgun because his life was put at risk. He again claimed that the attack was orchestrated by Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, an Artashat native who wields considerable political and economic power in the area.
Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), for its part, laid the blame on the local law-enforcement authorities. “We believe that the law-enforcement bodies in Ararat failed to ensure public order,” the CEC said in a statement read out by its chairman, Artak Sahradian.
A statement of condemnation was also issued by election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "There is no place for violence or threats of any kind in a democratic election process," Peter Eicher, head of the OSCE monitoring mission, said.
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway likewise urged the authorities to conduct a “a prompt and effective investigation.” “Measures should be taken to prevent any similar event from reoccurring, and any guilty party should be brought to justice,” he told reporters.
Meanwhile, Kocharian, who is seen as the favorite to win the February 19 election, said there must be no repeat of “such unpleasant incidents” and again pledged to ensure a clean election. Campaigning in the northwestern Shirak province on Wednesday, he declared: “The elections must be organized in such a way that nobody, no organization, casts doubt on the legitimacy of the elected president.”
In Azatan, a village near the provincial capital Gyumri, Kocharian chided the village chief for telling him that “everyone here is going to vote for you.” “If that really happens, we will all be disgraced,” Kocharian said, laughing.
Large groups of government employees and schoolchildren carrying election slogans and balloons were again on hand to greet the incumbent. At a rally in Gyumri, Kocharian took credit for the accelerated rebuilding of homes destroyed by the 1988 earthquake. The city mayor, Vartan Ghukasian, publicly granted the president honorary citizenship and urged locals to refer to him as “Robert the Builder.”
(Photolur photo: Kocharian surrounded by top government officials on a recent campaign trip.)