By Karine Simonian in LoriManush Makinian runs a kindergarten in one of Armenia’s oldest villages, but it is not children that she is taking care of these days. She has been entrusted with what local authorities consider a far more important task: to recruit members for the governing Republican Party (HHK) from among fellow residents of Haghpat, a village in the northern Lori region.
Makinian has a weighty reason to assist in the HHK’s plans to win the upcoming parliamentary elections. She says Haghpat’s Mayor Ruben Varosian has promised that the village kindergarten, which was shut down due to a lack of funds a few years ago, will be reopened should the party get the largest number of votes in the local constituency.
Not surprisingly, Varosian himself is a Republican. So are the heads of most other local governments in Armenia, a fact that was crucial for the HHK’s victory in the previous elections that were denounced as deeply flawed by international observers, the Armenian opposition and even some members of the governing coalition. The Republicans and their top leader, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, intend to repeat and even build on that success this time around.
Armenian newspapers have reported in recent months that local government officials, schoolteachers and other public sector employees across the country are being told to join the HHK or face dismissal. Party leaders have strongly denied the claims. Whatever the truth, anecdotal evidence shows that the HHK is recruiting new members en masse ahead of the elections.
Haghpat, which is famous for a nearby 10th century monastery included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is a case in point. Makinian has already cajoled some 110 locals into becoming party members. Clearly disinterested in politics, many of them have done so out of respect for this soft-spoken woman, better known as Comrade Manush. Some are also related to her.
“I did that for the sake of Manush,” said Gohar, a middle-aged villager. “I don’t believe in any party.”
Melik Matosian, another Haghpat resident, used to be affiliated with another major party, Orinats Yerkir, and has decided to stay away from party politics for the rest of his life. But he did do Makinian a favor by getting other, younger members of his family to join the HHK.
“When spring comes we take our cows to the mountains and bring them back in the autumn,” said Matosian. “This is our best party. Whichever party wins, we’ll keep doing our job.”
All it takes to become a Republican is a handwritten application, two photographs and a passport number. But Makinian cautioned that the new recruits will not necessarily reaffirm their allegiance Armenia’s number one “party of power” come May 12. “I can’t guarantee that if they join the HHK, they will vote for the HHK,” she said.
Still, the HHK leaders seem to have calculated that most new members will feel obliged to vote for their party. Makinian’s brother-in-law Volodya showed that they have reason to think so. “If I didn’t join [the HHK], I’m not sure I would bother to vote,” he said. “Now if I don’t vote, they’ll call me a traitor, won’t they?”