In a separate note sent to Washington in March 2008 and publicized by WikiLeaks late last week, Joseph Pennington, the then U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan, also cited an Armenian Constitutional Court judge as alleging that outgoing President Robert Kocharian forced the court to uphold those results.
According to the government-controlled Central Election Commission, then Prime Minister Sarkisian won the election outright with about 53 percent of the vote. Ter-Petrosian, his main challenger, rejected the figure as fraudulent and staged non-stop demonstrations in Yerevan to demand a re-run of the ballot.
Eight protesters and two security personnel were killed and more than 200 other people injured as the Armenian authorities suppressed the protests on March 1-2, 2008.
“Mounting evidence … has called into question the government's claim that PM Serzh Sarkisian won a legitimate first-round majority on February 19,” Pennington wrote to the U.S. State Department on March 10, 2008, according to WikiLeaks.
“Official figures gave [Ter-Petrosian] 21.5 percent (just over 350,000) of votes cast on February 19, and the true figure is doubtless substantially higher,” he wrote. “Our best guess would be somewhere between 30-35 percent (490,000 - 570,000 votes).”
“If a run-off election were held now, [Levon Ter-Petrosian] would very likely beat Sarkisian. Many Armenians now see LTP as the only one with a chance to break down what they see as the deepening entrenchment of a Karabakhi-led kleptocracy in Armenia, seemingly determined to monopolize every lever of political and economic power,” Pennington claimed.
In their preliminary verdict, Western observers mainly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the election was administered “mostly in accordance” with democratic standards. They toned down this positive assessment in their final report issued in May 2008.
The State Department distanced itself from these conclusions, describing the ballot as “significantly flawed.” Washington also pointedly declined to congratulate Sarkisian on his hotly disputed victory. Still, it stopped short of explicitly condemning the use of deadly force against Ter-Petrosian supporters.
While deploring the “extreme rhetoric” of some opposition figures and noting that Ter-Petrosian himself rigged elections when he served as Armenia’s first president, Pennington stressed that “Sarkisian’s supporters were the wrong-doers” during the presidential race.
“This may not have been [Sarkisian’s] own doing,” he said. “President Kocharian and other influential, anti-democratic forces may each have had their own reasons for engineering this outcome. However, Sarkisian at best has failed to take a strong stand against it, or the subsequent harsh crackdown [on the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition.]”
The diplomat went on to suggest that the new Armenian president might be more “progressive and democratic” than his predecessor and thus deserve Western support. “Withholding that support may pull the rug out from under what could be Sarkisian's sincere desire to clean house,” he said.
Sarkisian’s standing in Washington improved considerably in the following months as he embarked on an unprecedented rapprochement with Turkey that was strongly welcomed and backed by the West. Ter-Petrosian has since repeatedly accused Western powers of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Armenia for “geopolitical considerations.”
In another WikiLeaks disclosure, Pennington reported that Valeri Poghosian, one of Armenia’s nine Constitutional Court justices, initiated a secret meeting with U.S. Embassy officials at his Yerevan home on March 6, 2008. He said Poghosian alleged that Kocharian has “fixed” the court’s upcoming decision to reject Ter-Petrosian’s appeal against the official election results.
“Late on March 4, on the eve of the court's hearing of LTP's complaint, Poghosian said he was contacted by phone and summoned to the Presidency by someone speaking on behalf of the president's chief of staff,” reads the cable. “Initially taken back by the call, he said he laughed at the caller before refusing the summoning.
“He then ignored repeated calls placed to his office that evening. Poghosian alleged that at least three of his colleagues answered similar summons to the presidency earlier on March 4, though he cannot prove it.”
Poghosian, who served as national security minister and became Constitutional Court justice during Ter-Petrosian’s 1991-1998 rule, has not yet commented on this. He is reported to be currently in China on a business trip.
Kocharian, meanwhile, accused the United States of exploiting elections to meddle in Armenia’s internal affairs during a hitherto unknown May 2009 conversation with then U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
“You deform our political process in the pursuit of your interests by encouraging the opposition to politicize our elections so that they become an instrument for outsiders to pressure Armenia,” Yovanovitch quoted him as saying in her written account of that conversation also disclosed by the whistle-blowing website last week
“The Ambassador strongly disagreed with Kocharian, and affirmed that the United States does not take any side in any election,” she said.