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By Emil Danielyan
Aram Karapetian and Aram Sarkisian, two major opposition candidates in the Armenian presidential race, got on Friday an enthusiastic reception from thousands of people in the southern town of Artashat, the scene of anti-opposition violence earlier this week.

Speaking at a joint campaign rally which proceeded peacefully, the two men accused President Robert Kocharian of trying to secure reelection by fraudulent means and assured local opposition supporters that they will defeat the incumbent.

Sarkisian, who was Armenia’s prime minister in 1999-2000, left further indications that he will quit the race in favor of another, more popular opposition contender this weekend.

“The opposition will act with a single candidate,” he declared at the end of an emotional speech tinged with derogatory remarks about Kocharian. “Dear people, you will not have to wait for long. You will again see me on television. I will announce that news to you and to the person whom you want to see as a single candidate.”

Sarkisian’s most likely choice is Stepan Demirchian, the leader of the center-left People’s Party of Armenia who, according to some opinion polls, is the most popular opposition candidate. The official deadline for the withdrawal of presidential candidacies is this Sunday.

Sarkisian and Karapetian were greeted with rapturous applause and folk music as they slowly made their way through the large crowd and walked on to the stage -- the place where the latter’s campaign manager, Hayk Babukhanian, was beaten and stabbed by a group of pro-Kocharian men on Tuesday. Their joint appearance was meant to demonstrate opposition unity in the face of alleged government pressure.

Tuesday’s incident was a major theme of the speeches. Hrant Khachatrian, chairman of the Union for Constitutional Rights (SIM) party supporting Karapetian, again blamed the violence on Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, a native and former mayor of Artashat. “It was a conspiracy hatched by Hovik Abrahamian and aimed at disrupting the opposition campaign,” he said.

The charges were echoed by senior members of Sarkisian’s Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party who claimed that Kocharian is rapidly losing ground to his challengers and is desperate to cling to power. “Rest assured that Robert Kocharian has already been defeated,” said one of them, Aramazd Zakarian.

Sarkisian, for his part, said: “I think you are all sure that in the event of fair elections Robert Kocharian can not win. He himself knows that…This man is very scared. If he wasn’t scared he wouldn’t make Serzh [Sarkisian] his campaign manager.”

“This time, they will not manage to come to power with Serzh and various people with nicknames,” he added, apparently referring to minister Abrahamian, known to the locals with his “Muk” (Mouse) nickname.

The Armenian police, widely blamed for not preventing Tuesday’s attacks, took additional security measures this time around, deploying several dozen extra officers on Artashat’s main square filled with people. The rally’s organizers put their number at more than 10,000. Many of the demonstrators arrived from surrounding villages.

Sarkisian was born and lives in Ararat, a town 20 kilometers further to south and the capital of the eponymous province which encompasses Artashat. The area was the stronghold of Vazgen Sarkisian, his charismatic brother and predecessor assassinated in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament.

Immediately after the attack on Babukhanian, a Yerevan newspaper quoted the provincial governor as warning the presidential candidate against visiting Artashat. The governor claimed that a rally by Aram Sarkisian could result in “murder” because many local residents “have problems” with him.

The former prime minister’s reaction to the warning was defiant: “If there is someone in this province who has tried to talk to me with ultimatums, I must say that he is too small for doing so. I am the one who talked to his boss, Kocharian, with ultimatums.”

“I have no enemies here. Even Hovik Abrahamian is not my enemy. My dear people, there are no villages without mice,” he added, prompting a loud laughter from the crowd.

(RFE/RL photo)
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