By Nane Atshemian and Astghik Bedevian
Yerevan’s presidentially appointed mayor, Yervand Zakharian, urged teachers of municipal schools on Tuesday to vote for constitutional changes proposed by Armenia’s leadership and help to ensure their passage at the November 27 referendum.
The move underscored the increasingly visible involvement of public sector employees in the “Yes” campaign spearheaded by President Robert Kocharian’s ruling coalition.
“This stems from everybody’s interests,” Zakharian told hundreds of school principals and teachers mobilized by the municipality. “All we have to do is to take part in the November 27 referendum and say ‘yes’ in a very consolidated and organized manner.”
The mayor spoke at the end of a meeting that featured a 30-minute presentation by Kocharian’s chief constitutional lawyer of the essence of the Western backed reform. Armen Harutiunian speech was supposed to be followed by a question-answer session. But none of the participants volunteered to start the discussion. The embarrassing silence was ended by Zakharian who put two general questions to the Harutiunian.
“We received a clear explanation,” Nina Baloyan of Yerevan’s Secondary School No. 178 explained afterwards. She said the overwhelming majority of her colleagues will likely vote for the draft amendments. “Of course, there are those who are against, but the majority finds it easier to understand things and is inclined to vote for the changes,” she told RFE/RL.
“Judging from my conversations with my colleagues, I think that the ‘yes’ vote will be quite weighty,” said Sarkis Apanian, who runs the Yerevan School No. 48.
Levon Harutiunian, another school principal, was likewise confident. “As a citizen of the Republic of Armenia, I am obliged to discuss this with my colleagues, to know their opinion and to explain what the reforms are all about,” he said.
Armenian law places no such obligations on Harutiunian or any other civil servant. Furthermore, it bans public sector employees from becoming directly involved in election campaigns. Nevertheless, they have always been under pressure to help the ruling regime win elections.
The head of the Yerevan municipality’s Education Department, Onik Vatian, admitted on Monday that not only are the school staffs expected to vote for the amendments but to also urge the parents of their students to do the same. The principals are appointed and can be sacked by the department. They in turn have substantial leverage against the schoolteachers.
That many state officials are already involved in the pre-referendum proceedings is evident. For example, the “Yes” campaign in the northern Shirak province is run by Hovsep Simonian, head of the finance department at the regional administration. Simonian told RFE/RL that most of the local pro-amendment activists are schoolteachers and doctors.
For his part, Valeri Baklachian, the “Yes” campaign chief in the central Kotayk province, said that he is heavily relying on village mayors in rural areas. He complained about poor attendance of meetings organized by his headquarters in local villages.
“Of course, the community chiefs are to blame for that,” said Baklachian. “They failed to inform the population on time.”
Still, both men were confident about their chances of mustering sufficient popular support for Kocharian’s constitutional changes. “I think that an 80-90 percent ‘yes’ vote in Shirak is guaranteed,” claimed Simonian. His Kotayk counterpart came up with a more conservative projection, “I think we will get about 70 percent.”
Also campaigning for those amendments is Armenia’s influential Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and his loyalists. Their Nig-Aparan organization has sponsored the production of the official anthem of the “Yes” campaign. The song, which tells voters that “Yes is the morning of my homeland; yes is our unselfish hopes,” has already been recorded and will be aired by Armenia’s government-controlled TV channels in the coming weeks.