By Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
Opposition activists in Gyumri complained on Thursday that they have serious trouble posting campaign placards calling on residents of Armenia’s second largest city to vote for opposition presidential candidates.
“We put our posters on the streets and they get torn up a few hours later,” said Levon Galstian, the leader of a local electoral bloc supporting one of the main opposition candidates, Artashes Geghamian. Galstian laid the blame on influential supporters of the incumbent President Robert Kocharian
Similar claims were made by the local campaign headquarters of another major opposition contender, Vazgen Manukian. “If we post our advertisements in the morning, they disappear by next evening,” said Vahan Tumasian, chairman of the regional branch of Manukian’s National Democratic Union (AZhM) party. “If we post them in the evening they disappear by next morning.”
Tumasian charged that the Kocharian campaign has formed special “brigades” roaming the streets of Gyumri and tearing up opposition posters. He said the local AZhM office has decided to stop putting out printed ads and is now distributing Manukian’s small campaign brochures instead.
Kocharian’s posters, by contrast, can be seen on the windows of many local shops, restaurants and even public schools. Only a handful of privately owned places have agreed to showcase campaign pictures of Geghamian and Manukian. Supporters of the two opposition leaders had to post most of their ads on the walls of public residential buildings.
The visual presence of other opposition candidates, including Stepan Demirchian, is nowhere to be seen in Gyumri. Demirchian’s local campaign chief, Artashes Karapetian, said this situation results from widespread popular fear of the authorities. “An atmosphere of fear reigns today in Gyumri,” he said. “It didn’t exist during the previous elections.”
Kocharian and his top allies hope to make a strong showing in Gyumri and the entire Shirak province. The area, devastated by the 1988 earthquake, has seen large-scale reconstruction work over the past three years. A large part of it has been funded by the Lincy Foundation of U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
On Wednesday Gyumri saw a rare concert of some of Russia’s best known pop singers, some of them of Armenian origin. Culture Minister Roland Sharoyan, who arrived in the city on the occasion, denied any link between the performance and the Kocharian campaign.
However, the pre-election character of the event became evident when the most famous and influential Russian singer, Iosif Kobzon, told the audience that Kocharian is his “good friend.”
“As a politician coming from a different country, I have no right to campaign here. But you are all normal people and know what do, right?” Kobzon said before performing a song which he devoted to the Armenian president.