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Armenia: Claims of Official Harassment Mar Ballot

Opposition activists see arrest of anti-government campaigner as culmination of campaign to cow them before the election.
By Karine Asatryan
Armenia’s opposition parties accuse the government of using the dirtiest of tricks, from the vicious to the ridiculous, to stop them winning seats in parliament in elections on May 12.



After an opposition campaign allegedly marred by official harassment, activists were shocked by the arrest of anti-government campaigner Alexander Arzumanian on May 7.



Security service agents said they found 55,400 US dollars at the former foreign minister’s Yerevan flat and accused him of involvement in a Russian plot to launder money. Fellow ex-minister Vahan Shirkhanian was also targeted, and is said to have had 28,000 dollars seized.



According to the National Security Service, Shirkhanian and Arzumanian went to Moscow in April to meet Levon Markos, a Russian citizen wanted by police in Armenia for fraud and money laundering.



Shirkhanian said the suggestion that the money found at his home was illegal was absurd.



“My friends had helped with some money for the wedding of my daughter. This sum was held for my daughter, who recently got engaged, her fiancé, my cousin and my neighbour,” said Shirkhanian, who has not been charged.



Opposition activists saw the raids as the culmination of a campaign to cow them before the election, which is a key test of Armenia’s willingness to live up to its democratic rhetoric.



“Such actions against a single person are a reflection of what the government is doing to the whole Armenian republic,” said Raffi Hovannisian, head of the opposition Heritage Party and a former foreign minister.



Few activists have suffered the fate of the two ex-ministers, but meetings at town halls have found themselves subject to sudden “power cuts”, voters have been warned off, activists have been intimidated and their leaflets have been confiscated.



It all adds up to an atmosphere both fearful and apathetic, where voters are too scared to vote for change and many people scarcely believe change is even possible.



In parliamentary elections four years ago, parties loyal to President Robert Kocharian won a majority in parliament despite widespread allegations of fraud from the opposition, which won just 15 of the 131 seats in the national assembly.



Earlier elections in 2003 returned Kocharian to the presidency, and were greeted by thousands-strong protests against electoral fraud.



Amalia Kostanian, head of the Yerevan office of anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, said the government was using its clout even more forcefully than in 2003.



“This administrative resource is being used much more cynically, they are giving out more pre-election bribes, and the law is being interpreted in more interesting ways,” said Kostanian.



Specifically, the law did not criminalise a party handing out bribes until April 8 since that was the official start date of campaigning.



Other cases of alleged intimidation have been considerably less subtle.



A 19-year-old volunteer from Hovannisian's Heritage Party called Nune Ashughian was stopped when handing out leaflets in Yerevan on April 20. Four men got out of a green BMW and the driver, a stout man aged about 40, demanded the leaflets.



“I refused to give up the leaflets, but he took them off me and said it was their territory and that I shouldn’t hand out rubbish,” she said.



A week later, the police said the leaflets had been taken by Robert Pogosian, a local resident who was apparently cross that they were being dropped in hallways that his mother had to clean. He had handed them in to the police, they said.



According to the opposition, many local officials refused to let them put up posters or rent buildings. For Aram Sarkisian, head of the Republic Party, the techniques of controlling the vote have become slicker than last time round.



“While we’re still trying to get to the places where we want to hold meetings, officials and policemen have managed to scare [the local residents] so they don’t come,” he said.



Several times, representatives of the Armenian People's Party have had to use their car batteries to power public address systems, when electricity supplies have mysteriously been shut off.



Such power cuts happened in Martuni on April 26 and in Sisian on May 2. In Martuni, several local residents told IWPR that local officials had warned them not to attend the speech by NPA leader Stepan Demirchian.



Demirchian stood against Kocharian in the 2003 presidential elections, coming second in the run-off with 32.5 per cent of the vote. He said the tactics he was seeing reminded him of what he faced four years ago, when international observers said the vote-counting process was flawed and the election fell short of international standards.



“The authorities talk about European values, justice. But they are as amoral now as they have ever been, that’s their level,” he said.



Arus, a resident of the village of Shnokh in the Lori region, told this correspondent that she is scared to go to opposition meetings, fearing for her job. Even though she didn’t go to such events, local officials were still intimidating her, she said.



In a country where the economy is yet to recover from the post-Soviet collapse, and a third of the population live below the poverty line, such threats carry weight.



The 2003 poll came mere months before the peaceful revolution in neighbouring Georgia, which was followed by a popular revolution in Ukraine and a government collapse in Kyrgyzstan. Hovannisian hinted that opposition parties might push for such an uprising, if they felt the government had robbed them at the ballot box.



“This will repeat itself until the current Armenian government is replaced by a new one - either through elections or through a popular uprising,” said Hovannisian.



Observers singled out an interview given by Gagik Tsarukian, head of the pro-government Flourishing Armenia party and one of the country’s wealthiest men, to Russian television as a sign that the president would not loosen his grip and allow a Ukraine-style revolution without a fight.



“Our president is keeping an eye on the situation. We have a very strong president, so this will not happen here,” Tsarukian told Russia’s 02 channel.



Meanwhile, in a television interview this week, Kocharian rejected the opposition claims of intimidation by the authorities.



“This campaign is considerably different from all other electoral processes in that all the participants have enjoyed absolute freedom. Nobody, no party has ever had any difficulty or obstacle in meeting with the people.



“Airtime was available; all the political forces had the opportunity to convey their messages to the people. Different parties used the opportunity to this or that extent, but that’s another story - that depended on the human potential of those parties, sometimes financial resources or even a lack of fresh ideas.”



Karine Asatryan is a reporter at the A1+ TV Company.

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