By Emil DanielyanA group of government loyalists hurled stones at and scuffled with supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian on Wednesday in an attempt to disrupt the former president’s rally in Artashat, an Armenian town notorious for election-related violence against opposition activists.
The incident, which heightened tension in the run-up to Armenia’s presidential election, was condemned by Ter-Petrosian as a government “provocation” aimed at derailing his election campaign. Ter-Petrosian and his allies specifically laid the blame on Hovik Abrahamian, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s influential deputy and campaign manager who holds sway in Artashat and surrounding villages. Law-enforcement authorities, however, denied this and came up with a totally different version of events.
The normally reserved ex-president struggled to keep his cool as a dozen thugs tried to pick a fight with his activists after the latter led a female heckler away from a crowd of more than 1,000 people attending the rally. The youths went on to pelt rally organizers with pieces of ice and stones, one of them landing near Ter-Petrosian. Uniformed police officers, present at Ter-Petrosian’s gatherings in neighboring villages, were not on hand to stop the violence.
“Here is Serzh Sarkisian, here is Robert Kocharian, here is Hovik Abrahamian,” Ter-Petrosian said as the ugly scene unfolded. “They are hooligans, thieves, gangsters who have plundered our country and want to infringe on the will of our people by means of such hooligans.”
“The masters of these hooligans, thieves, gangsters, and rats will flee Armenia on February 19,” he added.
The incident was still not over as the thugs attacked and beat the deputy chief of Ter-Petrosian’s security service who guarded the opposition candidate’s limousine parked nearby. “They were throwing stones at the people from here,” Lieutenant-Colonel Sarkis Hovannisian told RFE/RL, pressing a handkerchief against his bruised cheek. “As soon as I tried to stop them they attacked me. There were seven or eight of them.”
Hovannisian, accompanied by Ter-Petrosian and other opposition leaders, visited the local police headquarters and gave testimony about the assault after the troubled rally. He was taken to hospital later in the day.
As the situation escalated amid “Levon! Levon!” chants from the crowd, Alik Sargsian, the governor of the southern Ararat region, of which Artashat is the capital, emerged from his office overlooking the venue of the rally. “Mr. Governor, where are your police? Mr. Governor, you are not a governor, you are a hooligan,” Ter-Petrosian shouted, demanding that Sargsian “rein in” the thugs and address the crowd.
Sargsian, who is a former police officer, insisted that the violence was not provoked by the local authorities. “The entire region knows that the governor is not a hooligan, and the political force that will throw mud at me will have a serious problem and will suffer losses, moral losses,” he said. “I have not seen any scuffles here.”
“You should have made sure that uniformed police had stood around the people here and protected all of us,” Ter-Petrosian retorted angrily. “You failed to do that.”
“I will bear responsibility for any incident and am going to watch things from here. I know everyone here by face,” responded the governor.
The Armenian police claimed later in the day Ter-Petrosian himself provoked the violence by making offensive remarks about “some officials.” “Three participants of the rally demanded an end to unethical and offensive statements, in response to which four or five young men supporting the organizers of the event jostled, hit and toppled them to the ground, causing them physical injuries,” the police said in a statement. “Supporters of the victims resorted to retaliatory actions.”
The statement also claimed that the Artashat police stepped in and “quickly took the situation under control.” “The identity of individuals involved in the incident has been ascertained and they have been detained,” it added without elaborating.
Artashat and wine-growing villages around it are widely seen as the de facto fiefdom of Abrahamian and his extended family, who own many local businesses as well as large swathes of agricultural land. The town located about 30 kilometers south of Yerevan has already been the scene of pre-election violent incidents in the past. The Armenian opposition blamed those incidents, including the stabbing in 2003 of the campaign manager of an opposition presidential candidate, on Abrahamian. The influential minister denied any involvement, however.
Abrahamian was on Wednesday one of the main targets of Ter-Petrosian’s harsh verbal attacks on Armenia’s leadership, with the ex-president repeatedly using the deputy prime minister's derogatory nickname, Muk (Mouse), in his speeches in Artashat and other regional towns and villages.
“That provocation was a sign of the regime’s wretchedness, misery and defeat,” Ter-Petrosian told more than 200 people in Pokr Vedi, a village which he visited after Artashat. “Only a weak, wretched and miserable person can resort to such steps,”
“If the authorities were sure that they will win [the February 19 election,] they would not have resorted to such steps,” said one of his top allies, Aram Sarkisian. “They already sense their imminent defeat. We will win before February 19.”