By Emil Danielyan
Opposition leader Artur Baghdasarian received an enthusiastic reception by more than a thousand supporters in Yerevan on Tuesday, saying that his Orinats Yerkir Party will win the May 12 elections despite being “slandered” by the Armenian authorities.
Baghdasarian pledged to strive for “an Armenia of law and justice” and accused the government of corruption in a fiery speech at a campaign rally held in the city’s southern Shengavit district.
“The victory which we will score together with you in a week from now will change this country,” he said. “By voting for the Orinats Yerkir Party every Armenian, regardless of their political views, will vote for their children, for their future.”
“No lies, no slander can stop us. We must go forward, we must win, we must change our country,” said the 38-year-old former speaker of the Armenian parliament.
It was a clear reference to accusations of high treason leveled by President Robert Kocharian against Baghdasarian in connection with a scandal caused by the latter’s secretly recorded conversation with a Yerevan-based British diplomat. In a series of reports published by a pro-Kocharian newspaper late last month, he was quoted as urging the European Union to condemn the Armenian government’s handling of the upcoming election before voting day. Baghdasarian reportedly told the diplomat that the vote can already be deemed undemocratic.
Baghdasarian promptly condemned the secret recording of the conversation and rejected Kocharian’s accusations. But he made no mention of the scandal in his Shengavit speech. “I strongly condemn that,” Baghdasarian told RFE/RL as he left a local square. “Everybody knows who is who.”
Other Orinats Yerkir leaders sounded confident that the affair will not lose their party votes. One of them, Mher Shahgeldian, claimed in his speech that the government’s “dirty propaganda” is backfiring. “Orinats Yerkir’s popularity is rising day by day,” he said.
Many in the female-dominated crowd were furious with what they see as a government-orchestrated effort to discredit the leader of one of the main opposition election contenders. “It’s a lie,” said Kristina Khachaturova, a young party member. “He’s so strong that they can’t fight him with honest methods.”
Criticism of the government was the main theme of the rally speeches, with Baghdasarian saying that he resigned as parliament speaker and took his party out of Kocharian’s governing coalition in May 2006 because he was “fighting against injustice and illegalities.”
“Orinats Yerkir too could have kept silent,” he said. “We too could have said that we live in a wonderland. But we did not keep silent. There has not been a single parliament session without Orinats Yerkir deputies raising pressing problems and seeking solutions to them.”
Heghine Bisharian, the number two party figure who is running for parliament in a single-mandate Shengavit constituency, went farther, saying that the country’s rulers have “betrayed” Armenians and are “doing nothing except enriching themselves.”
Orinats Yerkir was forced out of the ruling coalition over its growing criticism of government policies, which other major Armenian parties found populist. Its ouster seems to have been precipitated by a newspaper interview in which Baghdasarian implicitly questioned the legitimacy of Kocharian’s 2003 reelection and called for Armenia’s eventual membership in NATO.
Risking further accusation of populism, the ambitious ex-speaker promised to triple modest pensions and double public sector salaries if he returns to power. He said he would do that by cracking down on government corruption and tax evasion.