By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Stepanian and Hovannes Shoghikian
Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian claimed to have received death threats from the Armenian authorities and expressed readiness to team up with another opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosian, as he rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan on Sunday.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on Monday dismissed the claims as a campaign ploy designed to mislead the public. Still, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian said through a spokeswoman that he instructed the Armenian police to launch an investigation.
“A murder threat was addressed to me last night,” Baghdasarian said in a speech in the city’s Liberty Square. “I want to say that if something happens to me, the current authorities will be directly responsible for that.”
“Armenia’s political elite was decapitated on October 27 [1999.] Now they want to terrorize me, a candidate for the president of Armenia. It is impossible to terrorize me. I am ready to sacrifice my life,” he added.
Baghdasarian would not say who threatened to kill him both in his speech and when he was approached by reported afterwards. “I’ll say more later on,” he said as he left the podium amid rapturous applause from scores of supporters of his Orinats Yerkir Party, many of them bused from outside Yerevan.
Baghdasarian made no mention of his allegations as he met on Monday with university professors and students in Yerevan. He spoke instead about the need to increase public spending on education.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, commented on the opposition leader’s claims as he campaigned in Yerevan’s northern Avan and Nor Nork districts. “I think that is a pre-election trick,” he told RFE/RL. “If such a thing had really happened, he could have simply appealed to law-enforcement bodies. I checked with law-enforcement bodies this morning. They didn’t receive such appeals.”
Addressing his rally in Nor Nork, Sarkisian scoffed at Baghdasarian’s stated readiness to “sacrifice” his life for the nation. “A question arises. When Armenia, the Armenian people needed such people, where was he?” he asked, clearly underlining the fact that 39-year-old ex-speaker’s did not participate in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Another major presidential hopeful, Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), made a similar point as he campaigned in the southern Armavir region. “People are beating themselves in the chest, saying that they are ready to die for the fatherland,” said Hovannisian. “Why didn’t they die in Karabakh? There was a great opportunity to do that. That’s when they should have expressed readiness to die for the fatherland.”
Baghdasarian, who is one of Sarkisian’s main opposition challengers, allegedly received the threats just hours after a Saturday news conference in which he pointedly declined to rule out the possibility of withdrawing his candidacy in Ter-Petrosian’s favor. The former Armenian president claimed on Friday that Baghdasarian and another top opposition leader, Raffi Hovannisian, have agreed to “join” his bid to oust the country’s leadership.
Speaking at the Yerevan rally, Baghdasarian confirmed that he is “in very active political negotiations” with Ter-Petrosian and Hovannisian but stopped short of promising to drop out of the presidential race. “I am convinced that this massive rally will be joined tomorrow by Levon Ter-Petrosian, Raffi Hovannisian and all those people who want to live in a free country,” he said without elaborating. “It doesn’t matter today who will join whom. What matters is consolidation.”
Buoyed by the size of the crowd, the Orinats Yerkir leader went on to imply that the ex-president too should consider joining his “popular movement.” “Time will tell, negotiations will tell who joins whom,” he said. “But I think that any politician would be honored to join us, to join these tens of thousands of people and change this system.”
Most of Baghdasarian’s hour-long speech, repeatedly interrupted by “Artur president!” chants, devoted to persisting socioeconomic hardship, with the opposition leader harshly criticizing the Armenian government’s economic policies and accusing it of “plundering” scarce public resources and hampering business competition.
“Our aim is to create a healthy, strong and growing economy, which guarantees equal opportunities for all of our compatriots,” said Baghdasarian. “To that end, we must do everything to ensure that lucrative forms of business are not concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs on Robert Kocharian’s and Serzh Sarkisian’s orders.”
“The scale of plunder in Armenia has reached an enormous scale in various spheres,” he added, pledging to punish “those who suck the people’s blood” if he becomes president.