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By Astghik Bedevian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Ruben Meloyan and Anna Saghabalian
Candidates presented their manifestos and held first meetings with voters on Monday as campaigning officially got underway for Armenia’s presidential election that will determine outgoing President Robert Kocharian's successor.

Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian was the first to hit the road, with other major opposition candidates contenting themselves with holding news conferences and other indoors meetings. For his part, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the presumed frontrunner, visited several of his campaign offices in Yerevan.

Sarkisian is scheduled to travel to the southern Vayots Dzor on Tuesday in his capacity as prime minister. It is not clear if he will hold official campaign meetings there.

Ter-Petrosian, meanwhile, spent the day touring towns and villages in central Armenia in a motorcade of about 40 cars that carried leaders of various opposition groups supporting his presidential bid. His meetings there appeared to attract considerable interest from local residents who turned out to hear their former president speak publicly for the first time in over a decade. Hundreds attended a Ter-Petrosian rally in the town of Artik, the starting point of the campaign swing.

Addressing the crowd, Ter-Petrosian recalled severe hardship suffered during the first years of Armenia’s independence which coincided with the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and broader turmoil in the region. “I know that during my rule I did not live up to all of your expectations and hopes,” he said. “There were disappointments, there was discontent, there were very harsh criticisms. I accept all of that.”

“And if you think that I am to blame for that, I apologize for my guilt,” added Ter-Petrosian. “I have managed to make sense of the past. This is all I can do. I can’t do more. So you decide.”

The ex-president issued a similar public apology at a big rally in Yerevan last November. He made it clear at the same time that he believes that the deprivations of the early 1990s were the inevitable cost of the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan,

“I have not come here to ask or beg for votes. That’s Serzh’s business because he has no votes in Armenia,” Ter-Petrosian claimed on Monday, prompting “Levon! Levon!” chants from the crowd.

Ter-Petrosian again sounded supremely confident of his victory as he spoke at a similar rally held in another small town, Aparan. “It’s you, not me, who will win on February 19,” he claimed in a town square opposite Sarkisian’s local campaign headquarters. “I congratulate you on your victory in advance.”

Ter-Petrosian’s local campaign office is run by Razmik Petrosian, Aparan’s former mayor and a veteran of the Karabakh war. “Ter-Petrosian remains my commander-in-chief,” he told RFE/RL.

Ter-Petrosian’s wartime leadership of the country was also evoked by other local residents. “We have had only one victor in our history and that person is Levon Ter-Petrosian,” said one man. “I will vote for Levon because he is an intelligent man,” reasoned another.

But the crowds attracted by Ter-Petrosian were clearly not made up only of the ex-president’s sympathizers. “I will listen to everyone before making up my mind,” said one undecided voter in Aparan.

“I’m here because I am idle,” said another, older man. “I don’t trust anyone.”

Another major opposition contender, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, kicked off his campaign, titled “A civic movement for new Armenia,” with an official presentation of his 32-page election manifesto in Yerevan. “My victory will eliminate corruption and embezzlement rooted in the country,” he told to journalists and activists of his Orinats Yerkir party. “My victory will mean equality before law, a drastic rise in the living standards of the people of Armenia.”

Baghdasarian dismissed claims by government loyalists that the Armenian opposition can not scuttle a handover of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian because it has failed to field a single presidential candidate. “There are and there will be alliances,” he said without elaborating. “As for the authorities, they are not united either,” he added, noting that Sarkisian is also challenged by a candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the governing coalition.

The Dashnaktsutyun candidate, Vahan Hovannisian, held a similar campaign event in Yerevan later in the day. Both he and Baghdasarian have said that the presidential election will require two rounds of voting.

Also meeting journalists was another opposition candidate, Artashes Geghamian. Geghamian again spent much of his news conference, supposedly devoted to his campaign platform, attacking Ter-Petrosian and denouncing what he called a “barbaric” smear campaign waged against him by opposition newspapers. The latter have alleged that Geghamian was bribed by the authorities to enter the fray with the sole aim of discrediting the ex-president.

Geghamian’s opposition credentials were also questioned over the weekend by the Zharangutyun party of Raffi Hovannisian, a major opposition group that has so far declined to endorse any of the presidential hopefuls. “Mr. Geghamian’s recent political behavior raises questions about his being in opposition and reinforces the government’s positions,” Hovsep Khurshudian, a Zharangutyun spokesman, told RFE/RL.

Geghamian is not the only opposition candidate highly critical of Ter-Petrosian. Vazgen Manukian, Ter-Petrosian’s erstwhile comrade-in-arms and a longtime political rival, clearly had the ex-president in mind on Monday when he urged disgruntled voters not to look for a “lesser evil.” While having no fond memories of Ter-Petrosian’s years in power, many of them are even more unhappy with the current Armenian leadership and feel that only he can unseat it.

“An election must represent a choice between the good and the bad,” Manukian said in a meeting with a group of young Armenians. “The people must choose the good, and not the lesser evil.”

(Photolur photo: Ter-Petrosian greeted by a supporter.)
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