By Ruzanna Stepanian in Syunik
Campaigning for the constitutional referendum may have largely bypassed Armenia’s most remote province, but it is in Syunik that the authorities will likely report the highest turnout and percentage of “yes” votes after the polls close late on Sunday.
The mountainous region bordering Iran has traditionally produced record-high degrees of support for Armenia’s incumbent presidents and governing parties. At least according to officials results of the post-Soviet presidential and parliamentary elections criticized as undemocratic by the international community.
Syunik’s government-appointed governor, Surik Khachatrian, believes that the weekend referendum will not be an exception from this rule. He says an opinion poll conducted by the regional administration found that 60 percent of Syunik’s 120,000 eligible voters will endorse President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional amendments.
Speaking to RFE/RL in his office in the regional capital Kapan this week, Khachatrian pointed to the “state mentality” of the local people. “People endured a war for six years and realize that their victory needs to be reinforced with democracy,” he said.
Khachatrian has never been known as an ardent democrat though. The man mysteriously nicknamed “Liska” has instead been dogged by newspaper and opposition allegations that he leads a feared clan that holds sway in the regional town of Goris and surrounding villages.
As recently as last April he was accused of ordering an arson attack on a car belonging to the editor of a Kapan newspaper critical of the government. The paper’s editorial offices were reportedly ransacked by pro-government youths in October 2004. Khachatrian strongly denied any involvement in either incident.
The governor, who is close to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK), is now staking his own political future on the appropriate results of the referendum. “If Syunik says ‘no,’ I will tender my resignation and go,” he explained.
But such outcome, according to Khachatrian, is very unlikely. “People will say ‘yes’ just because trust and respect me,” he said.
This self-confidence, however, has not spared the regional administration the need to campaign hard for the success of the constitutional reform. The governor, his deputy, town and village mayors, heads of schools, hospitals and virtually all other public institutions have been actively involved in the effort. Schoolteachers, for example, have been instructed to hold meetings with their students’ parents and urge them to vote for the amendments.
Their task is facilitated by the Armenian opposition’s decision not to hold any campaign gatherings in Syunik. “If the opposition comes here, it won’t be able to rally even 15 people,” claimed Khachatrian. Local people, he said, listen to their mayors and village chiefs, rather than prominent oppositionists from Yerevan.
One of those mayors, Vartan Gevorgian, runs the nearby town of Kajaran which is home to Armenia’s largest copper mining plant. Gevorgian expects as many as 96 percent of its residents to back the amendments. “Kajaran is a ‘yes’ town,” he stated. “Wake up any sleeping resident of Kajaran and they will tell you they are going to say ‘yes.’”
However, random interviews with ordinary people suggested that support for the proposed constitutional changes is far from universal. “If they say ‘yes’ is good, we should vote ‘yes,’” a woman in Kapan said wryly.
Another female voter had a strong personal reason to look forward to the referendum. “I have not familiarized myself [with the amendments] but am waiting for November 27,” she said. “They have promised to bring [local] soldiers [serving in other parts of Armenia] here so that they vote in the referendum. My son will be among them, and I can’t wait to see him.”
“I read the [constitutional] draft and made thousands of notes in the text,” said one man. “That deeply flawed document must not be presented to the people.”
Public awareness of the essence of the constitutional changes seemed even weaker in Agarak, another mining town located on the Iranian border. A group of pensioners chatting on a street complained that nobody has explained to them what the reform is all about. “There are neither newspaper reports, nor brochures,” said one of them. “That is why we are totally uninformed.”
“All pensioners must say ‘no,’” said another. “Let our president know that the pensioners can’t live on 10,000 drams ($22) which he pays them.”
But a younger voter disagreed, citing his strong support for Armenia’s Karabakh-born president. “I come from Karabakh,” he said. “Why should I say ‘no’? I will say ‘yes’ because there is no better king than our king.”