An Armenian law-enforcement agency has refused to launch a formal criminal investigation into allegations to that former President Robert Kocharian rigged a presidential election to come to power in 1998.
Vahan Shirkhanian, who was a deputy defense minister at the time, made the allegations in an incriminating open letter to Kocharian released last month. He claimed that Karen Demirchian, Armenia’s Soviet-era leader, was the rightful winner of the two-round election held in February-March 1998.
Demirchian refused to concede defeat, alleging widespread fraud strongly denied by Kocharian and his allies. Western election monitors reported serious irregularities during the ballot.
Shirkhanian stood by his claims when he was questioned by the Special Investigative Service (SIS) later in March.
The SIS said on Friday that it will not open a criminal case because of the statute of limitations. It also refused to act on Shirkhanian’s claims that Kocharian was not eligible to run for president in the first place. The SIS explained that similar allegations made in the past were investigated by law-enforcement authorities and proved unsubstantiated.
Shirkhanian accepted the SIS explanations, while deploring the fact that Kocharian will not be prosecuted for vote rigging.
The ex-president, who ruled Armenia for ten years, was arrested in December on different coup charges which he rejects as politically motivated.
During the 1998 presidential race, Shirkhanian was a figure close to then Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, arguably the country’s most powerful man. Sarkisian and Demirchian subsequently co-founded a political alliance that won parliamentary elections held in May 1999.
Sarkisian became prime minister while Demirchian parliament speaker as a result. Both leaders as well as six other officials were killed in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament.
In his open letter, Shirkhanian also accused Kocharian of covering up the attack. For his part, the ex-president claimed in a memoir published in 2018 that Shirkhanian tried to use the shock assassination to replace him as head of state.
In 2015, Shirkhanian was arrested and charged with plotting to seize power together with members of a clandestine militant group led by Artur Vartanian, an obscure man who had reportedly lived in Spain for many years. He, Vartanian and about two dozen other individuals went on trial a few months later.
The National Security Service (NSS) said at the time that Vartanian and his associates drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state television buildings in Yerevan. It claimed that Shirkhanian agreed to participate in the alleged plot and suggested in 2015 that the armed group assassinate then President Serzh Sarkisian, instead of focusing on the seizure of the key state buildings.
Shirkhanian denied the accusations as politically motivated. He was released from custody in June 2018 pending the outcome of the high-profile trial. Vartanian and core members of his group remain behind bars.