By Astghik Bedevian and Hovannes Shoghikian in Syunik
Samvel Babayan, the Yerevan-based former military leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, dismissed on Friday widespread suggestions that he was pressured by the Armenian government into bowing out of an election showdown with a brother of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Babayan and businessman Aleksandr Sarkisian were the main candidates in a single-member constituency in the southeastern Syunik region, in what many regarded as the most intriguing individual contest in Armenia’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Sarkisian is strongly backed by the governing Republican Party (HHK), while Babayan’s Dashink (Alliance) party claims to be in opposition to the Armenian government.
Babayan unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy from the constituency encompassing the town of Goris and surrounding villages in late March, saying that will contest the elections only on the party list basis.
In an interview with RFE/RL, the once powerful retired general blamed the media for the decision. “The media wanted to personalize things and turn an ideological struggle into a personal one,” he said. “I just did not want to allow that and decided to score a team victory [for Dashink] instead.”
Babayan also dismissed speculation that the pullout from Goris was the price he paid for being deemed eligible to stand in the May 12 elections. Under Armenia’s constitution, only those Armenian citizens who have permanently resided in the country for the past five years can run for the National Assembly. Babayan moved to Yerevan from Karabakh in 2004.
“I have not met Robert Kocharian in the past two years,” argued Babayan. “We are an opposition, but an ideological, program-based one,” he said of Dashink, dismissing lingering suspicions about his secret ties with Armenia’s Karabakh-born president.
Babayan, who commanded the Karabakh Armenian army from 1993-1999, has kept a low profile since he and several of his aides were reportedly taken to Armenia’s the National Security Service for questioning in early March. But he sounded bullish about taking on the authorities as he kicked off Dashink’s election campaign in the southern town of Echmiadzin on Thursday.
“We must find the strength to remove the government,” he said in a campaign speech there. “Otherwise we will be doomed to living in slavery.”
Meanwhile, Aleksandr Sarkisian, notorious for his flamboyant behavior, seems assured of victory in the Goris constituency. The area close to Karabakh has long been considered a de facto fiefdom of Surik Khachatrian, the equally controversial governor of Syunik affiliated with the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Government critics fear that people there will simply be bribed or bullied into voting for the government-backed candidate.
Earlier this month, Sarkisian visited the local village of Tegh, the birthplace of the his father, on a campaign trip. “He said, ‘People, I don’t like making speeches. Just elect me and I’ll then tell you how I’m going to support you,’” Laura, a resident of Tegh, told RFE/RL.
The middle-aged woman admitted that she and two other members of her family would readily accept a vote bribe. “We have three votes and we would sell all of them. He will do nothing for the village anyway,” she said.
But as one man in the neighboring village of Khndzoresk observed, “They don’t have to hand out flour or something else. They just show force and you start shuddering.”
He said villagers are too scared to even report inaccuracies in the local voter registry to election officials. “Whatever the governor and the village mayor say has to be executed,” he claimed. “If you defy, your end will come.”
A climate of fear is even more evident in the town of Goris where, unlike in most other parts of Armenia, many people avoid speaking out against the government or supporting the opposition loudly. “The governor is intimidating everyone,” explained one elderly man.
In Syunik’s capital Kapan and the nearby industrial town of Kajaran, power effectively belongs to another senior member of the HHK. Maxim Hakobian is the chief executive of a German-owned mining giant which is the area’s main employer. “Our decision depends on the director,” one resident of Kajaran told RFE/RL in reference to the elections. “We do whatever the director tells us to do.”
Hakobian will, no doubt, tell them to vote for the HHK and its candidate in the Kapan-Kajaran constituency. That might explain why local residents showed little enthusiasm when Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun party, visited the town on a campaign trip to Syunik this week. Two of them stopped Hovannisian’s campaign motorcade on its way out of Kajaran to apologize for not approaching him and shaking his hands.
“We could lose our jobs because of that,” one of the men told the popular opposition politician. “There are no other employment opportunities here.”
Things looked similar in Syunik’s most remote district bordering Iran. “If somebody from the Republican Party holds a meeting here, all school students, factory employees, schoolteachers, and other workers will be forced to attend,” said one woman in the town of Agarak. “But if the opposition comes to town, you’d better stay away from the square.”