By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Atom MarkarianLarge groups of university and secondary school students are becoming a fixture in the campaign rallies staged by President Robert Kocharian and his political allies, in what appears to be a major element of his reelection strategy.
The presidential entourage could face tough questions about the legality of the practice after one of its key members was put on the defensive on Thursday over his instruction to school principals to campaign for the incumbent. Justice Minister David Harutiunian admitted that he gathered the headmasters in Yerevan’s Arabkir district on Wednesday and told them to “propagate” Kocharian’s reelection among their students’ parents.
“I meet with not only school principals, but also many other people,” Harutiunian told reporters. “But that has nothing to do with my work as a justice minister.”
“To those who are still unaware of that, I declare loudly: ‘I represent the presidential team…and propagate and will propagate for the president’,” he added.
“Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, which broke the news, reported that the “secret” meeting took place in the Arabkir office of Armenia’s electricity distribution network. The paper said Harutiunian, who himself ran a state school before entering politics in 1995, told former colleagues to “do everything” for Kocharian’s victory in the February 19 vote.
Opposition leaders claim that similar instructions have been issued to government employees by other government ministers and provincial governors.
Harutiunian insisted that his actions do not violate Armenia’s Electoral Code which prohibits all government officials from using their positions to support any election candidate. He argued that the school managers are not his subordinates.
Many of several hundred people attending Thursday a Kocharian rally in another Yerevan district, Davitashen, were schoolchildren. The gathering took place at noon, during the regular class hours. One of the schoolboys said all students of his school were told by the headmaster to attend it “because Mr. Kocharian will be here.” “We came to look at Robert Kocharian,” said another boy.
School students were also seen at a pro-presidential rally the previous day in a village in the central Kotayk province, the starting point of Kocharian’s campaign trips. One elderly villager told RFE/RL that “they just stood and looked on to make the crowd bigger.” “It was like an exhibition,” he said.
A large number of university students from Yerevan were bused to the provincial capital Hrazdan later on Wednesday to join the crowd of presidential supporters. Some of them carried pro-Kocharian slogans.
Addressing the Davitashen rally, Kocharian called on the opposition candidates to refrain from heightening political tensions in the run-up to the polls. “We shouldn’t disseminate malice among our people,” he said. “No nation has built its prosperity on malice.”
Kocharian also claimed credit for the 12 percent economic growth registered in Armenia last year. He said the record-high growth reflects the business community’s faith in his economic policies. Harutiun Pambukian, a wealthy businessman supporting the president, was on hand to endorse that argument.