By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian toughened his harsh anti-government rhetoric Thursday as he toured Armenia’s central Kotayk region on the fourth day of his election campaign.
Addressing voters in local towns and villages, Ter-Petrosian avoided dwelling on details of his election manifesto and focused instead on fresh verbal attacks on President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. In particular, he again implicated them in the October 1999 assassination of the parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.
“People who destroyed your beloved Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Sarkisian want to perpetuate their power based on blood,” Ter-Petrosian told a rally in Charentsavan, a once industrial small town. “And those people who serve them effectively assist individuals responsible for the greatest state disgrace in the entire history of the Armenian people.” Flanked by Demirchian’s son Stepan and Vazgen Sarkisian’s brother Aram, Ter-Petrosian declared that voting for him would be tantamount to showing respect for the two assassinated leaders.
Ter-Petrosian was particularly outspoken in his references to Serzh Sarkisian, pouncing on the latter’s alleged weakness for gambling and saying that Armenia will face another war with Azerbaijan if he is elected president. “He would lead you, our people, our entire country to the Monte Carlo casino and would lose it in that casino,” he charged.
Ter-Petrosian further claimed that last summer Sarkisian offered him “through many other people” to manage Matenadaran, Armenia’s famous museum of ancient manuscripts where he had worked until 1990, in return for not returning to active politics. “It would be a great honor for me. But for me, an honor given by Sarkisian is poison,” he told about 300 people who gathered in Charenstavan’s central square.
Among those attending the rally were several dozen employees of a local mineral water bottling company owned by Khachatur Sukiasian, a millionaire businessman close to Ter-Petrosian. The Bjni plant has been operating at a fraction of its capacity ever since being raided by tax officials last fall as part of a controversial government crackdown on Sukisian’s businesses accused of tax evasion. The tycoon, who plays a major role in the Ter-Petrosian campaign, says the government accusations are baseless and politically motivated.
Most of Bjni’s 250 or so employees have been effectively out of work since then. “We are not sure who we trust, we just want to keep our jobs,” said one of them. “This is the only place in town where people earn a decent living.”
Charentsavan has been one of the most economically depressed places in Armenia ever since the collapse of the Soviet economy which forced the closure of virtually all of its industrial enterprises in the early 1990s. The town has barely benefited from the country’s robust economic growth.
Ter-Petrosian allies, who addressed the small crowd, as well as local opposition activists accused Charentsavan Mayor Hakob Shahgeldian, whose father Kovalenko is Kotayk’s governor, of bullying local residents not to attend the gathering. Shahgeldian, who is also Prime Minister Sarkisian’s local campaign manager, denied this as he watched the rally from the nearby municipality building.
“Mr. Kovalenko and his noble son, you have booked yourself a cell in [Yerevan’s] Nubarashen prison,” Ter-Petrosian stated before heading to the Shahgeldians’ native village of Alapars where he similarly lashed out at the government.
The 63-year-old ex-president clearly failed to impress all of about 100 villagers who listened to his much shorter speech there. “For 15 years we have been electing presidents, deputies and others,” one of them told RFE/RL. “They come here, give promises but we stay just as poor.”
Another local man said he will not vote for Ter-Petrosian “even if God descends and asks me to” because of the hyperinflation of the early 1990s that wiped out his Soviet-era bank savings. “I worked hard in Communist times and saved money for my children but he came and turned it into a piece of paper,” he said. “Why isn’t he promising to return that money?”
“Whoever was in charge then, things would have been the same,” countered Vartan, an elderly resident of the nearby village of Bjni also visited by Ter-Petrosian. “Those were tough times. There was an earthquake and then the war.”
Other Ter-Petrosian supporters in the area cited the fact the war won under Armenia’s former leadership. “We had not won lands before,” said Ruben Yeghiazarian, a resident of neighboring Arzakan village. “We had always lost them.”
But as Mayis Hayrapetian, a local activist of Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia, admitted, those who have decided to vote for Ter-Petrosian are primarily motivated by their deep dislike of the government. “Many people here say it’s worth voting for him just to get rid of the current authorities,” he said.
“Opposition candidates have always won here. Our victory will be even more convincing this time around,” added Hayrapetian.
The opposition did well in the region even during the hotly disputed presidential election of September 1996 which saw Ter-Petrosian narrowly win a second term in office. In fact, Kotayk and the capital Yerevan were the only parts of Armenia where official vote results showed the then incumbent losing to his main opposition challenger, Vazgen Manukian.
Ter-Petrosian recalled this fact as he spoke to Charentsavan voters. “I am extremely happy with and proud of the fact that I was defeated in this region in 1996,” he said. “That is the greatest source of pride for me. Let anyone, any official, any police chief or mayor say if he has faced any retribution from me [at the time] … If had any achievements during my presidency, the biggest of them was your free vote against me.”