By Shakeh Avoyan and Karine Kalantarian
Opposition leader Artashes Geghamian began on Wednesday his pre-referendum campaign with a visit to the northern Lori region where he urged supporters to reject constitutional changes put forward by Armenia’s leadership.
Geghamian said the draft amendments are “really bad” despite being “radically” different from President Robert Kocharian’s initial constitutional package that was criticized by the Council of Europe. He attacked the authorities for exploiting the West’s strong endorsement of the constitutional draft that has been put to a referendum.
“They sound as if an atomic bomb will explode if we don’t say ‘yes’ to the amendments,” Geghamian told about 200 people who packed a conference room in the industrial town of Alaverdi.
The remarks appeared to strike a chord with the audience. “The people of Lori are very sincere,” said one woman. “But given the fact that there are no jobs here, especially in Alaverdi, they accept bribes and are honest enough to vote for the guy who hands out those bribes.”
“They must not accept bribes,” countered another opposition supporter. “The bribes are the reason why the people have such plight.”
Geghamian at the same time noted that his National Unity Party (AMK), one of the two opposition groups represented in parliament, would have backed the amendments if Kocharian and his governing coalition had agreed to call fresh parliamentary elections after the November 27 referendum. He had earlier demanded pre-term presidential elections as well.
The other major opposition force, the Artarutyun alliance, did not set such conditions. Artarutyun began its “No” campaign late last month in collaboration with a dozen other, smaller opposition parties. The AMK, by contrast, chose to act on its own, underscoring Geghamian’s uneasy relationship with Artarutyun leaders.
Meanwhile, two prominent members of the rival camp continued to make a case for a “yes” vote at a meeting with hundreds of Yerevan State University Students on Wednesday. Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian and the chairman of the parliament committee on foreign affairs, Armen Rustamian, said success of the Western-backed constitutional reform is vital for Armenia. They also said voting for the amendments would not mean expressing support for Kocharian.
“I think that it is not honest towards our country and society to move the issue to the opposition-versus-government plane,” argued Torosian.
However, few of the participants were able to put questions to the two men as they left the building, citing a lack of time. “They left many questions unanswered,” complained a female student. “Unfortunately we couldn’t ask our questions due to a lack of time.”
“They didn’t let us fully clarify some issues,” said one university lecturer. “They could have provided clearer explanations.”