By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Statements reportedly made by Armenia’s former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian in his secretly recorded conversation with a senior British diplomat constitute high treason, President Robert Kocharian claimed on Friday.
It was Kocharian’s first public reaction to the publication by a pro-presidential newspaper of purported details of Baghdasarian’s recent private meeting with the number two official in the British embassy in Yerevan. The leader of the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party was quoted as urging the European Union to criticize the Armenian authorities’ handling of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
“It’s hard to imagine that the former chairman of the National Assembly could fall so low,” Kocharian told students at Yerevan State University. “I don’t want to use legal terms. For me, this is a real manifestation of treason. That manifestation is all the more ugly given that it was done at his own initiative.”
Kocharian made it clear, however, that Baghdasarian will not be prosecuted under a relevant article of the Armenian Criminal Code. “We have received hundreds of phone calls in connection with that fact, various kinds of comments as to how such a politician can take part in the elections,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be right for state bodies to come up with some tough actions.
“The elections are coming up, and let every voter decide whether patriotism and dignity matters to them. If it doesn’t, let them vote [for Baghdasarian’s party.]”
Baghdasarian supported Kocharian and was considered one of his potential favored successors until Orinats Yerkir was forced to quit Armenia’s governing coalition one year ago. The populist party is now one of the main opposition contenders of the elections scheduled for May 12.
The British embassy on Thursday acknowledged that one of its top diplomats met Baghdasarian at a Yerevan restaurant last February but condemned the “dishonest” recording of their conversation revealed by the newspaper “Golos Armenii.” The paper, which is staunchly supportive of Kocharian, published what it described as excerpts from that conversation on Saturday and Thursday. The ex-speaker was quoted as saying that the EU should issue “some signal of alarm” before May 12.
Baghdasarian was quick to hit back at Kocharian’s extraordinary accusation. “I consider it condemnable and unacceptable,” he told reporters during a campaign trip to the southern town of Echmiadzin. “The traitors are all those who rig elections and disgrace the fatherland.”
Speaking to RFE/RL earlier on Friday, Baghdasarian repeated his strong condemnation of the “Golos Armenii” reports. “This is a violation of not only the constitution and laws but moral norms,” he said. “Even worse is the fact that the content of the conversation was distorted and dirty comments were made about it.”
“I have said and am repeating now that Armenia’s upcoming elections must meet international standards and that the international community, to which Armenia has assumed obligations, must closely follow the upcoming electoral processes,” he added.
Kocharian, meanwhile, was anxious to dispel widespread suspicions that the secret recording, which is illegal under Armenian law, was the work of the National Security Service (NSS). “After reading the first report I immediately instructed the National Security Service to contact the newspaper and examine all circumstances of that recording,” he told university students. “Sadly, what was reported … fully corresponds to reality.”
Kocharian stressed the fact that another opposition leader, Aram Karapetian, has said that he got hold of a copy of the scandalous recording before it was published by “Golos Armenii.” Karapetian was summoned to the NSS on Thursday to provide further explanations. He claimed after the interrogation that the former KGB itself recorded the conversation and deliberately planted a compact disc containing the audio on his office doorstep to deflect suspicions about its involvement in the affair.
The pro-opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” published on Thursday other details of Baghdasarian’s meeting with the British diplomat identified as Richard Hyde, the deputy chief of mission, which were not reported by “Golos Armenii.” In particular, Baghdasarian was quoted as detailing vote irregularities allegedly planned and committed by the governing Republican Party of Armenia.
According to “Haykakan Zhamanak,” the Orinats Yerkir leader said the elections can already be considered to have been falsified. “We know that,” Hyde was said to have replied.