By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Artur Baghdasarian faced accusations of “treason” and secret collaboration with the government from fellow opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian on Thursday as he finally refused to drop out of the presidential race in favor of Armenia’s former president.
The two opposition leaders traded bitter recriminations, ending speculation about the formation of an electoral alliance between them before the first round of voting slated for February 19.
In a written statement, Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party said its leader will not after all urge supporters to vote for Ter-Petrosian and could endorse the latter only in the event of a run-off vote pitting the ex-president against Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
“We find the second round inevitable,” Baghdasarian’s campaign manager, Heghine Bisharian, told journalists. “Besides, Artur Baghdasarian is a candidate aspiring not to the second but first place.”
Ter-Petrosian was apparently unaware of but seemed to anticipate this turn of events as he campaigned in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik region. Speaking at a rally in Meghri, a small town on the Iranian border, he claimed that he and Sarkisian are the only “real” election contenders and that six other candidates are simply helping the prime minister become Armenia’s next president.
“Artur Baghdasarian is threatening to join the list of those candidates,” said Ter-Petrosian. “Whatever he says, if Artur Baghdasarian doesn’t join our movement, he will play the role of a traitor, he will help Serzh Sarkisian.” The former parliament speaker would be “finished” as a politician in that case, he added.
The pro-Ter-Petrosian daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” went further, alleging in its Thursday edition that Baghdasarian has already cut a secret deal with Sarkisian that will see the two men go into the second round. “Artur Baghdasarian’s political biography shows that at critical moments he always did what was needed by Serzh Sarkisian,” charged the paper.
Baghdasarian denied and condemned the allegations as a “blackmail” in an interview with RFE/RL later in the day. “By the same token, I can say that he who doesn’t join me commits treason, that he who doesn’t join me is with Serzh or Robert [Kocharian,” he said. “But I won’t do that for now and am calling for an end to this posture.”
“Levon Ter-Petrosian has no right to make such statements about a 100,000-strong team and myself. Furthermore, they say one thing during negotiations in the evening but publish a different thing in the morning. We find this approach unacceptable,” added Baghdasarian.
“When I look at their newspapers I become convinced that Levon Ter-Petrosian apparently reached an agreement with Serzh Sarkisian to break up and divide the entire opposition field,” Bisharian alleged for her part. “They are pursuing a policy which plays into Serzh Sarkisian’s hands.”
The two opposition frontrunners for weeks negotiated on the possibility of joining forces against Sarkisian but failed to reach agreement before Saturday’s deadline for candidates’ withdrawal from the race. Baghdasarian, who had been a staunch supporter of Ter-Petrosian during the latter’s rule, implied this week that he might still endorse the former president while having his name on the ballot.
“We never talked about Artur Baghdasarian joining Levon Ter-Petrosian or Levon Ter-Petrosian joining Artur Baghdasarian. We talked about alliances and consolidation,” Baghdasarian said on Thursday without elaborating.
Armenia’s leadership appears to have been worried about the possibility of an electoral alliance between Ter-Petrosian and Baghdasarian. President Robert Kocharian held a rare news conference last week to advise the ex-speaker against throwing his weight behind Ter-Petrosian.