By Emil Danielyan in Gyumri
President Robert Kocharian hopes that recent years’ progress in the long-running reconstruction of Armenia’s northwestern regions devastated by the 1988 earthquake is earning him a large following there and strengthening his appeal among voters across the country.
So confident he appears of winning a landslide victory in Shirak province in the forthcoming presidential election that his top aides present the area bordering Turkey as a bastion of pro-Kocharian sentiment. No wonder that the provincial capital Gyumri is the only place in Armenia where Kocharian plans to go twice during his high-profile reelection campaign.
But opposition leaders there believe that the real outcome of the February 19 vote will be a big disappointment for Kocharian, saying that his popularity is grossly exaggerated by presidential loyalists. “Kocharian’s expectations are greater than his real approval ratings,” says Vahan Tumasian, the regional leader of the National Democratic Union (AZhM), a major opposition party.
Not quite so, says Vartan Ghukasian, Gyumri’s controversial mayor and an ardent Kocharian backer. Ghukasian insists that the incumbent will emerge as the clear winner of the race because the socioeconomic situation in Armenia’s second largest city and surrounding areas has improved markedly under his five-year rule. “I really believe in that,” he tells RFE/RL.
On Wednesday, Ghukasian got yet another opportunity to publicly express his sympathy for Kocharian while the latter visited the city. The mayor granted Kocharian honorary citizenship of Gyumri and called him “Robert the Builder” in front of a large crowd that gathered outside the city’s main theater. Big banners calling for the president’s reelection were posted there by the local authorities two weeks before his arrival.
That Kocharian has quite a few supporters in Gyumri is evident. Even among ordinary people still huddling in depressing temporary shelters known as “domiks.” Those who plan to vote for him point to the acceleration of the reconstruction effort which has provided thousands of people with decent housing.
“There is a lot of construction going on and the ‘domiks’ are disappearing,” says Ginush Arakelian, a young woman who lives in one of Gyumri’s several thousand shacks with her husband and two children. “We do appreciate changes under Kocharian.”
“Thanks to him, there has been a lot of progress in the city,” agrees Larisa Baghdasarian, a middle-aged woman who runs a kiosk in the same shanty town. Baghdasarian’s family had already received a new apartment a few years ago. But having no decent jobs to earn a living, they had to sell it and move back to a much cheaper “domik” -- a phenomenon which is not uncommon in unemployment-stricken Gyumri.
This might explain why many other Gyumri residents are unhappy with Kocharian and will likely vote for opposition presidential candidates. Their most frequently cited name is Stepan Demirchian. Here as well the leader of the opposition People’s Party (HZhK) owes most of his appeal to the huge popularity of his late father Karen Demirchian, who ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974-1988. This was a time when Gyumri was considered the most prosperous and lively place in the republic.
“I very much respect Stepan Demirchian because he is an honest person, a real heir to his father,” says pensioner Hovannes Zarmanian. “At least, he should have learned something from his father,” concedes another, much younger Demirchian backer, Hayastan Hovannisian.
Opposition supporters also argue that the bulk of the reconstruction is funded by external sources such as the World Bank, the Lincy Foundation of U.S. financier Kirk Kerkorian and other Diaspora charities. Besides, they say, the positive change is not as profound as it is presented by the authorities.
“There has definitely been some improvement, nobody denies that,” says the AZhM’s Tumasian. “But what they present is an exaggeration. When watching television, people here feel that they don’t live in Gyumri.”
The mixed feelings of Gyumri voters came to light during a concert of folk music and dances organized by Kocharian’s regional campaign office on Sunday. More than a thousand spectators were also shown Kocharian’s televised campaign advertisements portraying him as an internationally respected statesman. Rapturous applause given by a part of the audience was muffled by equally noisy whistles of disapproval.
Only the elections can ascertain the exact degree of Kocharian’s popularity with the local population. Mayor Ghukasian anticipates that the incumbent will win at least 35,000 votes in Gyumri, more than he did in the last mayoral election held in October.
But opposition activists claim that that can be achieved only by fraudulent means. Persisting inaccuracies in the voter lists, which facilitate ballot box stuffing, is a key source of their concern. Officially, there are 120,000 registered voters in the city. Many believe that the figure is grossly inflated and does not take into account the past decade’s substantial out-migration from the region.
Like elsewhere in Armenia, the Kocharian campaign is conducted by the entire state apparatus, with the Shirak governor, Felix Pirumian, personally overseeing it. All local electoral commissions are under their control. Kocharian’s campaign posters can be seen everywhere: on government buildings, shops and even schools. Opposition campaigners complain that their printouts get torn down shortly after being posted.
Having put much energy into the earthquake zone, Kocharian seems to be using it as a showcase of his purported good governance. His campaign managers have recently translated into Armenian and recorded French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour’s famous “Pour toi, Armenie” (For you, Armenia) song written in the wake of the 1988 earthquake. The song, performed by leading French pop stars, had helped to mobilize massive relief aid in France to the quake’s victims.
The song’s Armenian version, broadcast by pro-presidential television channels, features footage of Kocharian visiting construction sites and opening new buildings.
Kocharian, meanwhile, is due to pay another visit to Gyumri on February 14, on the eve of the voting, to inaugurate yet another newly built apartment block.