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Armenian Election Clash Looms

Government and opposition are set on a collision course following the disputed first round of Armenia's presidential election.
By Susanna Petrosian

With a few days to go before a second and final round of voting in Armenia's presidential election on March 5, political tensions are growing, as both government and opposition look set to claim victory.


Incumbent leader Robert Kocharian, fighting for re-election, is using strong-arm tactics against the opposition and has even deployed soldiers from his native territory of Nagorny Karabakh to Yerevan.


Challenger Stepan Demirchian is bringing tens of thousands of supporters on to the streets of the capital to boost his claim that the first round of voting was fraught with irregularities.


The official adjusted final results of the first round held on February 19 left Kocharian marginally short of an immediate victory with 49.5 per cent of the vote, and Demirchian trailing in second place polling 28.2 per cent.


However, foreign observers from the Council of Europe and the OSCE recorded "serious shortcomings" in the way these votes were counted.


Third placed Artashes Gegamian, who was awarded 17.7 per cent of the vote, has denounced the first round of voting as illegitimate but has not given his support to either of the other two candidates.


The furore over the initial vote has left the two sides deeply divided. Demirchian now has the endorsement of several of the other former candidates in the contest, including two ex-prime ministers, Aram Sarkisian and Vazgen Manukian, and US-born, onetime foreign minister Raffi Hovanissian, all of whom say he has already been elected president of Armenia.


The opposition has held a string of demonstrations in the centre of Yerevan, attended by between 45,000 and 100,000 people, according to various estimates. For Armenia, whose population is officially put at three million people, this is a vast crowd.


Kocharian and the government have responded aggressively and with barely veiled threats of force. The authorities have blocked vehicles from outside Yerevan coming into the city, which might bring people to the demonstrations. Many drivers from the provinces have complained that they are being turned back by traffic police.


More disturbingly, several dozen opposition activists are now under arrest.


On February 22, police detained more than 50 pro-Demirchian demonstrators for 15 days on charges of "petty hooliganism". Their court cases were held behind closed doors, contrary to regulations. Another wave of arrests followed at the rally the next day.


The government says that 56 people have been detained, while the opposition puts the number at 96. Justice ministry spokesman Ara Sagatelian alleged that many of those arrested had criminal records. But Arshak Sadoyan, a parliamentary deputy and close adviser to Demirchian, told demonstrators that the arrests were "an obvious provocation by the authorities, intended to set the people and the law enforcement agencies against one another".


Both sides clearly anticipate more trouble. A statement by senior staff at the defence ministry has warned opposition demonstrators rather ominously that force may be used to put down protests.


"We are calling for an end to declarations and actions that are anti-constitutional and divide society," the statement said. "Should public order be breached and a possible threat arise to the security of our frontiers, the armed forces cannot adopt a passive position."


However, sources close to the government have told IWPR that senior army officers are refusing to take part in any operation against opposition demonstrators and that Kocharian has deployed more than 100 elite troops from Nagorny Karabakh to give him support.


"In the best case this step threatens to complicate relations between the two ethnic Armenian homelands and it may lead to real hostility between them," said journalist and political analyst David Petrosian.


Demirchian's tactics thus far have been shaped by his lack of access to state television, whose news coverage is strongly favouring the incumbent president. He is using the public rallies to press his case that following the February 19 vote, he, not Kocharian, is the legitimate leader of Armenia.


Speakers at the rallies proclaim that Demirchian is already Armenia's elected president and call on Kocharian to step down.


"My first step as president of the Republic of Armenia will be to punish those guilty of faking the elections," Demirchian told his supporters. "Today it's obvious that the people has rejected Kocharian and the political will of the people will prevail. A regime, which defies the will of its own people, is doomed. We will not tolerate the regime seizing power."


Dismissing these charges, Kocharian warned the opposition not to upset "stability" in Armenia. "We will respond very seriously and harshly to any attempts to disrupt the normal work of the government and to disturb public order," he said on February 22.


The incumbent leader rejected accusations of vote rigging, suggesting that his opponents were embittered losers. "I think that the opposition was much more active in falsifying the vote," he said.


Time has virtually run out for any compromise to be struck between these two almost irreconcilable positions. Campaigning ends on March 3 - and the final vote due to take place two days later.


Susanna Petrosian is a journalist with Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan


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