Law-enforcement authorities have backed claims by a candidate of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) that his loyalists did not buy votes when they handed out cash during the April 2 parliamentary elections.
On election day, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Sisak Gabrielian, noticed that many voters in Yerevan’s Kond neighborhood are visiting a local campaign office of the candidate, Hakob Beglarian, just before going into a nearby polling station and casting ballots there. Some of them had cash in their hands as they left the office.
Young people operating the office denied giving vote bribes to local residents when Gabrielian went in and asked them for comment. They claimed that they are “paying wages.”
Gabrielian saw long lists of people containing their passport numbers, addresses and signatures. The HHK activists then forced him to leave the office. Some of them wrested his mobile phone, which was filming the conversation, and hit him. Another journalist was also assaulted outside Beglarian’s office.
Two weeks ago, Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) formally charged a man with attacking Gabrielian. The law-enforcement agency referred to the suspect as a mere “resident of Yerevan” and said nothing about his connection to the HHK.
The SIS subsequently also decided not to prosecute the HHK campaigners in Kond on vote buying charges. It claimed that they simply paid the wages of Beglarian’s local “activists.”
Armenian opposition and civic groups maintain that the party headed by President Serzh Sarkisian systematically bought votes from impoverished citizens to win the April 2 ballot. In their first post-election report, European monitors e similarly cited “credible information about vote buying.”
An HHK spokesman admitted on April 5 that vote bribes were handed out by some candidates. But he insisted that they did not have a “substantial impact” on the election results
Daniel Ioannisian of the Union of Informed Citizens, which monitored the elections, said on Monday that the SIS’s decision only proves that vote buying was sanctioned by the government. “When the law-enforcement system covers up vote buying it means that a whole national system of administrative resources is at work,” he said.
“It is illegal to give money to people just like that. They have to be legally registered workers and they have pay income tax and other taxes,” Ioannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Another RFE/RL reporter witnessed a similar scene in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia during a disputed constitutional referendum held in December 2015. A man handed out 10,000-dram ($21) notes to people from a minibus parked near a local polling station.
According to Ioannisian, law-enforcement authorities similarly claimed at the time the man was paying his workers’ wages. “We sent inquires to the tax service and established that those people never worked for the [cash] distributor,” said the activist, adding that the authorities never even tried to verify that.