By Emil Danielyan and Astghik BedevianFormer President Levon Ter-Petrosian ended his election campaign Saturday with another massive demonstration in Yerevan which he said testifies to his impending victory in next Tuesday’s presidential election.
Addressing tens of thousands enthusiastic supporters, Ter-Petrosian claimed to have secured Russia’s backing for his presidential bid. He also warned that his next rally in the capital, scheduled for Wednesday, will have a “lasting” character if the Armenian authorities falsify vote results.
“We, together with you, will make use of all of our rights given by law, all possible legal means to dispute, demand and ensure a revision of those [falsified] results. None of us will go home until we reclaim our victory,” he told the crowd after it marched through the city center, chanting “Levon! Levon!” and demanding regime change.
President Robert Kocharian, meanwhile, said he is undaunted by the prospect of post-election street protests. “Of course, if there are peaceful demonstrations and other actions, then the state will have nothing to do and we will only watch law and order,” he told Armenia’s leading TV stations in an interview broadcast later in the day. “If there are attempts to trigger riots, the state machine will counter them with all its power. Nobody should doubt that.”
“The law-enforcement system in Armenia is powerful, and I consider that one of my achievements,” said Kocharian.
Kocharian and his preferred successor, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, already successfully quelled a campaign of anti-government demonstrations staged by the Armenian opposition nearly four years ago. The most important of those protests attended by several thousand people in April 2004 was forcibly dispersed by security forces. It remains to be seen how the latter would deal with much bigger crowds pulled by Ter-Petrosian.
In an interview with RFE/RL on Sunday, Ter-Petrosian insisted that he will not take any violent actions against the authorities. “So far only the authorities have provoked violence,” he said. “They have used force against the people, against our supporters.”
Ter-Petrosian was also confident that the government “will not resort to serious violence” and will find it “much more difficult to rig the elections” this time around. “The outcome of the vote is clear to me,” he claimed. “I think that if the elections are free, fair and democratic, the victory of our popular movement will be guaranteed.”
“The kleptocracy has already lost and the people have won,” Ter-Petrosian declared in a separate speech at Saturday’s rally in the city’s Liberty Square that preceded the opposition procession. “All we have to do is to formalize that victory on February 19.”
The charismatic ex-president based his stated confidence on strong public interest which his nationwide campaign rallies appear to have generated. He said he and his numerous opposition allies have succeeded in ending what he called an atmosphere of fear created by the authorities and offsetting the aggressive promotion of Prime Minister Sarkisian’s candidacy by the government-controlled electronic media.
“Little by little, thanks to the rallies in Yerevan, thanks to the activity in the four regions adjacent to Yerevan, we opened the eyes of people in the remote regions as well,” said Ter-Petrosian. “It can be said that the enthusiasm, the determination, the civic consciousnesses reigning in this square now also reigns all over the republic,” he added.
Ter-Petrosian also spoke about his surprise February 4 visit to Moscow during which he reportedly met with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s first deputy prime minister and outgoing President Vladimir Putin’s likely successor. The reported meeting raised questions about the Kremlin’s support for a transfer of power from Kocharian to Sarkisian. It came just days after Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov’s visit to Yerevan during which he stopped short of explicitly endorsing Sarkisian’s presidential candidacy.
Ter-Petrosian would not say whom he met in Moscow. But he did claim to have secured Russian support for his presidential bid. “Russia clearly differentiates the Armenian state from the Armenian regime,” he said. “Russia needs a partner befitting it. Russia needs a partner enjoying the trust of its own people. Russia does not regard Armenia’s current regime as such a partner. Russia will view as such a partner only a government to be elected in a popular vote on February 19, of which I am the candidate.”
Ter-Petrosian’s self-confidence was echoed by his top allies who also addressed the rally. “It is impossible to break up this force and all those who will act against the people must be conscious of this,” said People’s Party leader Stepan Demirchian, who was Kocharian’s main challenger in the last presidential election.
“There are so many of you here that I feel like my brother Vazgen is alive,” said another opposition, Aram Sarkisian, referring to Armenia’s former prime minister assassinated in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the National Assembly. He went on to condemn Prime Minister Sarkisian (no relation to Aram) for using footage of Vazgen Sarkisian in his campaign advertisements.
The images in which Vazgen praises Serzh’s role during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh are apparently meant to disprove Ter-Petrosian’s repeated allegations that the current Armenian leadership had a hand in the 1999 parliament shootings. The allegations are a major reason why many prominent war veterans who revere the assassinated prime minister have rallied around Ter-Petrosian. Some of them are senior members of the Yerkrapah Union of war veterans founded by Vazgen Sarkisian.
“We won’t allow them to rig the elections,” Miasnik Malkhasian, deputy chairman of Yerkrapah, told the rally. “All of us will rally around our the republic’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosian and celebrate our victory on February 20.”
It was not clear if Malkhasian was speaking on behalf of Yerkrapah. The influential union is headed by Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian. He has not publicly commented on the election so far but is rumored to be sympathetic to the ex-president.
Also reaffirming support for Ter-Petrosian was Zharangutyun (Heritage), one of only two opposition parties represented in parliament. Still, its popular leader, Raffi Hovannisian, again declined to personally endorse Serzh Sarkisian’s main challenger, leaving it to one of his associates, Vartan Khachatrian, to address the gathering.
“The Zharangutyun party has urged all of its supporters to vote for the leader of the popular movement, Levon Ter-Petrosian,” Khachatrian said in his speech. “We have only one task -- to hold fair elections in Armenia -- because we don’t doubt our victory,” he added.
Ter-Petrosian’s attempts to win over the other opposition parliament force, the Orinats Yerkir Party, have proved unsuccessful. Its leader and presidential candidate Artur Baghdasarian has refused to withdraw his candidacy and endorse Ter-Petrosian. The latter on Saturday again accused Baghdasarian of “treason” and urged Orinats Yerkir supporters to defy their leader.
“I am calling on all Orinats Yerkir structures not to follow a leader who is taking them down the path of treason and to join our popular movement,” said Ter-Petrosian. He pointed to another speaker at his latest rally who claimed to be the chairman of the Orinats Yerkir chapter in Yerevan’s central administrative district.
“Thousands of Orinats Yerkir members like me have joined this movement,” said the main identified as Armen Ghazarian. “This is not treason. Treason is when you don’t stand by your nation. All of us must today stand by this movement and Levon Ter-Petrosian.”
Orinats Yerkir swiftly issued a statement angrily denying Ghazarian’s affiliation with the party. It also demanded that state prosecutors criminal proceedings against the man.
In his interview with RFE/RL, Ter-Petrosian stood by his view that international mediators’ existing proposals to end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are very similar to their 1997 peace plan which he strongly advocated and which was rejected as “defeatist” by Armenia’s current leaders. He said he would therefore accept those proposals as a “basis for holding negotiations” with Azerbaijan in the event of his election victory.