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Tensions Rise In Yerevan Amid Election Fraud Claims

Armenia -- Yerevan residents vote in mayoral elections on May 31, 2009.

The Armenian opposition alleged widespread vote buying and other irregularities on Sunday as voting progressed in Yerevan’s mayoral elections marked by a relatively high voter turnout. The polling was also marred by reported attacks on and intimidation of several journalists. (UPDATED)

The Armenian National Congress (HAK), the main opposition contender, reported more than 80 instances of alleged electoral fraud by 6 p.m. local time, three hours before the closure of more than 400 polling stations across the city. The Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, another opposition force which is not running for Yerevan mayor, made dozens of similar claims.

The majority of the complaints referred to the busing of presumably bribed voters and other manifestations of alleged vote buying Armenia’s two main governing parties. RFE/RL correspondents saw busloads of people outside several polling stations.

One of them was located in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastian district, a traditional trouble spot. An elderly woman that was bused to a local precinct along with group of other citizens said she was promised 5,000 drams ($13.5) in return for voting for a party which she refused to name.

“They didn’t pay us a penny,” complained the woman. “They had promised to give us 5,000 drams each. Where is the money? They’ve fooled us.”

A resident of the city’s southern Charbakh suburb told RFE/RL that the local branch of the HHK paid her and her neighbors 5,000 drams on the eve of the polls. Another woman, who lives in the northern Nor Nork district, said she accepted a vote bribe of 10,000 drams from the Prosperous Armenia (BHK), which is also represented in the Armenian government.

Armenia -- A woman in Yerevan prepares to cast her ballot in the May 31, 2009 mayoral elections.

A minibus carrying several voters was also observed outside a polling station in the city’s Arabkir district. But apart from that there were no serious violations reported from Arabkir by early afternoon. Opposition proxies in several local polling stations described the voting as calm and orderly.

The situation seemed far more chaotic and tense in Malatia-Sebastia. In one local precinct, voters could be seen approaching polling booths and discussing whom to vote for in violation of law. “I didn’t notice anyone talking to each other,” the commission chairman, Marat Apinian, told RFE/RL. “When did you see that?”

Apinian got exasperated when pressed by the correspondent moments later. “You have no right to put your nose into our affairs,” he said. “Stand over there and stop getting on my nerves.”

Mikael Danielian, a prominent human rights campaigner observing the voting, claimed to have been forced to leave another local precinct. “It’s impossible to work there,” he said. “There are some ‘authoritative’ figures running the show there and not letting people take pictures.”

An HAK proxy in the precinct said he was bullied by the same men when he tried to stop ballot stuffing. “They said I won’t emerge alive from here tonight,” he claimed.

An HAK proxy as well as a Zharangutyun representative were also allegedly assaulted by the chairman of another precinct commission in Malatia-Sebastia, Gor Misakian. The information could not be immediately confirmed.

Also in Malatia-Sebastia, a freelance photographer for the opposition “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily, who asked not to be identified, said he had his video camera taken away after videotaping a ballot stuffing committed by a group of men who burst into the polling station. “They said, ‘Give us your phone number so we can return your camera,’” he said. “So I left my number.”

“There were many policemen around. They just stood by and watched. They probably wondered if I’ll get beaten up,” the photographer added with a grin.

In yet another Malatia-Sebastia polling station, government loyalists were reported to have attacked two female correspondents for the newspaper “168 Zham” and the online news service Tert.am as well as Sona Ayvazian, an election observer representing the Armenian branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

“They tried to stuff ballots a couple of times,” Ayvazian told RFE/RL. “We noticed and didn’t let them do that.”

“As I stood guard by the ballot box, a group of young and not so young men came in and started dragging me away,” she said. “I started yelling to attract attention. The two journalists tried to photograph the incident. But they were jostled and driven out.”

Tensions also ran high in a part of central Yerevan regarded as the stronghold of Gagik Beglarian, the incumbent Yerevan mayor heading the HHK’s list of candidates. In one polling station there, election officials allowed a large concentration of people in breach of a legal provision that bans the simultaneous presence of more than 15 persons.

“There are more than 100 people here right now,” said Zoya Tadevosian, a member of the Central Election Commission affiliated with Zharangutyun. “Why? Because these voters are brought here by minibuses, buses.”

Voting in a nearby precinct was marred by a reported attack on Gohar Vezirian, a correspondent for the opposition daily “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun,” by bodyguards of Levon Sargsian, an HHK parliamentarian with a history of violent conduct. “I went into the polling station and saw deputy Levon Sargsian,” said Vezirian. “I said, “What are you doing here? Get out of here?’”

According to Vezirian, Sargsian swore at her and she responded in a similar fashion. “Like a coward, he stepped aside and his thick-necked bodyguards attacked me. One of them slapped me from behind, while another kicked me in the belly,” said the journalist.

She was taken to the nearest police station for questioning after the incident. A police statement issued later in the day cited Sargsian’s bodyguards as saying that Vezirian herself attacked and insulted them.

Elsewhere in the city center, an RFE/RL correspondent saw President Serzh Sarkisian’s equally controversial brother Aleksandr demonstratively vote for the ruling HHK. An HAK proxy that protested against the violation of the secrecy of the ballot was verbally abused by Sarkisian. “Who the hell are you to lecture me on this country’s laws?” Sarkisian told the young woman.

Another parliamentarian, who is affiliated with the BHK, clashed with the chairwoman of a precinct commission in the southern Shengavit district after witnessing “numerous violations of the Electoral Code” there. “I warned the lady that as a deputy of the National Assembly I will not allow her to continue her traditional actions,” Naira Zohrabian told RFE/RL. “She aggressively told me to mind my business and shut up … In order to stave off her blows, I pushed her hand back and slapped the lady.”

In the neighboring Erebuni district, an RFE/RL correspondent and cameraman were ordered to leave a precinct after videotaping the vote registers posted on the wall. “If I smash your camera will you take offense?” Zhirayr Ayvazian, the commission chairman, shouted at them. “You have no right to videotape the lists. Voter lists are not subject to publication. Get out of here.” Ayvazian dismissed the fact that the same lists are also posted outside the polling station and can therefore be seen by anyone.

Once they left the building located across the street from a police station, the RFE/RL film crew as well as a journalist from the A1+ TV station were threatened and bullied by a group of young men. “Do you understand Armenian?” one of them said. “We don’t want to be filmed.”

In contrast to other polling stations, there were no police officers there to restrain the aggressive youths. Instead, there were lines of empty minibuses parked nearby.

Meanwhile, Eduard Sharmazanov, the HHK spokesman, downplayed these incidents and insisted, two hours before the closure of the polls, that the vote has been largely democratic and orderly. “Of course there may be violations and incidents,” he said. “The question is whether they are widespread. There are certainly not widespread.”