By Astghik Bedevian, Karine Kalantarian, Ruben Meloyan, Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
The polls closed across Armenia late Tuesday in a presidential election that proved to be one of the most violent in the country’s history amid reports of widespread beatings of opposition activists and journalists who claimed to have witnessed vote buying and other fraud.
The campaign team of the main opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosian, said scores of his proxies in and outside Yerevan were beaten up by government loyalists after refusing to turn a blind eye on vote irregularities.
“It can already be concluded that in essence what is happening in Armenia is not an election,” Ter-Petrosian’s campaign spokesman, Arman Musinian, declared five hours after the opening of the polls. “What is happening is an attempt to once again seize power in Armenia. There are widespread falsifications, attacks, intimidations.”
“We warn that as a consequence of intimidation and other violations, the situation can get out of control, full responsibility for which would be born by the ruling regime,” Nikol Pashinian, another member of Ter-Petrosian’s campaign team, told a news conference three hours later.
Also crying foul was another major opposition candidate, Artur Baghdasarian. In a written statement issued three hours before the closure of the polls, Baghdasarian’s campaign headquarters said the voting is taking place in an “atmosphere of threats and violence” and is characterized by “mass ballot stuffing and other irregularities.”
However, both law-enforcement authorities and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) dismissed those reports, insisting that the polling has been largely peaceful. The Sarkisian campaign said it has registered only minor “technical” problems that can not affect the freedom and fairness of the vote.
According to Musinian, violence was particularly rampant in the city’s southern Erebuni district where he said law-enforcement officials teamed up with “criminal elements” to intimidate anyone attempting to prevent vote rigging. Two parliament deputies from the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party supporting Ter-Petrosian who claimed that police used force to throw them out of two local polling stations where they were present as observers.
One of the lawmakers, Armen Martirosian, said the precinct commission chairman ordered him to leave the polling station after he witnessed and tried to stop ballot box stuffing. Martirosian said the disobeyed the “illegal” order before being roughed up by the chief of the Erebuni police and a group of young men.
A journalist from the opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” present at the dispute said one of the men stole her camera and recorder. “When I shouted ‘give it back,’ he came back and they started beating us,” said Lusine Barseghian. “I was hit especially hard in the stomach.”
“This is not quite the case,” countered Sayad Shirinian, a spokesman for the Armenian police. He did not elaborate, though, saying only that the police did not use force against Martirosian and the other Zharangutyun deputy, Zaruhi Postanjian.
Pashinian said Ter-Petrosian activists were also beaten up in other Yerevan districts. Two of them claimed that they were kidnapped and beaten up in the city’s northern Avan suburb by pro-government parliamentarian and businessman Ruben Hayrapetian and his men. One of the proxies had a bruised face.
The Ter-Petrosian campaign also said that at least 14 of its activists, among them two prominent politicians, were assaulted in Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan. One Ter-Petrosian proxy there, Larisa Tadevosian, said she was snatched from a local polling station, forced into a car and driven outside the town by three burly men early in the morning.
“They threatened and warned me to keep silent while monitoring the work of the commission. Or else, there would be a ‘continuation,’” Tadevosian told RFE/RL. “They then beat me up,” she said, pointing to her black eye.
The female campaigner claimed that one of the kidnappers was the chief bodyguard of Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy pro-government parliamentarian who holds sway in Abovian and surrounding villages. She was speaking to RFE/RL at a police station in Abovian where she gave testimony about the incident. The police said they launched an investigation.
Among the alleged victims of violence were also two former parliamentarians actively involved in the Ter-Petrosian campaign. Gurgen Yengibarian and Yerjanik Abgarian said they were assaulted by unknown men on the street after arriving in Abovian to protect Tadevosian.
Also beaten up was a proxy of another, less known presidential candidate, Arman Melikian. Pargev Mnatsakanian said that he was assaulted by a group of men minutes after detecting a case of so-called “carousel” voting, an infamous technique of vote buying, in his polling station in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district. Mnatsakanian was hospitalized with serious injuries and was discharged from hospital later in the day.
“There were about 30 of them,” he told RFE/RL at home. “They kicked me in the head and the back. I don’t understand what I was guilty of.”
The situation was also extremely tense at another Malatia-Sebastian polling station where a Ter-Petrosian proxy angrily accused election commission officials of serious violations. “There has been ballot box stuffing, multiple voting and other falsifications,” charged the proxy.
“The situation is every tense here,” said Lusine Vartanian, a member of the precinct commission representing Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party. “There are lots of people who have no right to be here. They stand by ballot boxes and tell people who to vote for.”
Vartanian’s interview with RFE/RL was abruptly ended by the commission chairman who ordered our correspondent to leave the premises.
The commission chairman ordered an RFE/RL correspondent to leave the station moments later.
Vahagn Khachatrian, head of the Ter-Petrosian campaign in Malatia-Sebastia, alleged that violence and vote irregularities in the area have a systematic character. “Elections in the entire district must be annulled,” he said.
“All beatings and other violations here are being done by one person, Samvel Aleksanian,” Khachatrian said, referring to another influential tycoon close to the Armenian government. He claimed that “carousel” and multiple voting is the most common form of falsifications, with scores of people bribed by Aleksanian and bused to various polling stations in the mainly working-class area.
Minibuses belonging to Aleksanian-owned businesses could be seen parked outside local polling stations throughout the day. Similar scenes were also commonplace in other parts of Armenia.
In the country’s second largest city of Gyumri, voters could be seen getting in and out of minibuses with dark curtains before casting ballots in the intimidating presence of groups of young men. “We’ve brought people here. It’s cold and snowy. What’s wrong with that?” said one of the men. Another man sitting the front seat of one such minibus insulted and bullied an RFE/RL correspondent when she tried to talk to him.
According to local election observers, voters were paid 5,000 drams ($16) each for voting for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. “I haven’t seen such a large-scale distribution of vote bribes before,” said Levon Barseghian, head of Gyumri’s Asparez Journalists’s Club which monitored the voting.
It was a similar stoy in another major Armenian city, Vanadzor. Local residents were bused to polling stations there throughout the day. One of them, an elderly women, praised those who organized the free service. Asked whether she will vote for the government candidate in return, she said, “Absolutely.”
Voters could also be seen entering the Vanadzor office of the Sarkisian campaign run by regional Governor Aram Kocharian and Vanadzor Mayor Samvel Darpinian. An RFE/RL correspondent was not allowed to enter the building and investigate allegations that they are receiving vote bribes.
The ferrying of people to voting stations was similarly observed by journalists and observers throughout Armenia during last May’s parliamentary elections. Opposition leaders claimed at the time that those people were bribed to vote for pro-government parties and candidates in several polling stations with false passports and other documents. The authorities denied those claims.
In Yerevan’s Zeytun district, an RFE/RL correspondent saw on Tuesday morning several dozen people, many of them not residents of Yerevan, receiving police identifications outside Sarkisian’s local campaign office. The documents allow them to vote without producing passports. They boarded three buses after being told by Sarkisian campaign workers in which polling station they should cast ballots. Speaking to RFE/RL, some of those people admitted that they have already voted earlier in the day.
“We didn’t hand out anything,” insisted one Sarkisian campaigner. “Voters themselves obtained those papers. You didn’t see what you claim.”
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General said later in the day that the RFE/RL report from Zeytun “does not correspond to reality.” The law-enforcement agency as well as the Armenian police also dismissed as baseless the reports of violence and vote buying.
The denial was echoed by Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the Sarkisian campaign. “We regard reports about Ter-Petrosian supporters allegedly subjected to violence as a provocation directed against our campaign,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL. “Serzh Sarkisian’s campaign headquarters is doing and will do everything to make sure that the elections take place in accordance with international standards.”
“I believe that this will be the best election in our history,” he said.
Shirinian, the police spokesman, also claimed Ter-Petrosian loyalists themselves “obstructed” the work of election bodies across Armenia. He said a criminal case has been opened against one of the ex-president’s close associates, Samvel Gevorgian, who “terrorized” election officials in a village in eastern Armenia.
The voting was also marred by violence against two journalists covering the election. Hovsep Hovsepian, a cameraman for the A1+ TV station controversially pulled off the air in 2002, said he was assaulted on the street after filming a brawl involving some 40 men. “They started panicking as soon as they saw a camera,” Hovsepian told RFE/RL. “Four or five of them attacked and wrested the camera from me, shouting abuse. They took out the video cassette, smashed it and returned the camera.”
Samvel Avagian, a correspondent for the pro-Ter-Petrosian newspaper “Hayk,” said he was assaulted in the presence of a police officer after trying to talk to a dozen voters seated in a minibus near a food market in central Yerevan.
“I asked what they are up to and they got really worried,” said Avagian. “The man who organized them invited and took me to the market director’s office.” He said he was introduced to a plainclothes man and a police officer in that room. “As I asked the policeman questions the man attacked me and took my tape recorder.”
Avagian was questioned by the police for about three hours afterwards. “The police investigator told me that it remains to be seen who is to blame for the incident,” he said. “He said if it turns out that I recorded the conversation illegally I will be deemed guilty.”
(Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri and Karine Simonian in Vanadzor also contributed to this report.)