Armenian Government Moves Against Ex-President

Official media campaign waged against former president as he launches new leadership bid.

Armenian Government Moves Against Ex-President

Official media campaign waged against former president as he launches new leadership bid.

After a nine-year silence, former Armenian leader Levon Ter-Petrosian declared on October 26 that he would be running for president in next year’s elections.

In response, the current administration has moved swiftly to undermine Ter-Petrosian’s campaign. Police detained several of his supporters three days before he made his announcement.

Ter-Petrosian, who was Armenian president from 1991 to 1998, announced his plans at a rally on Yerevan’s Freedom Square attended by 10,000-15,000 people, ending weeks of speculation about his political comeback ahead of a presidential poll due next February.

The current president, Robert Kocharian, who is serving out the final months of his second and final term, mocked his predecessor’s ambitions. In televised remarks during a visit to the southern town of Kapan, he said that Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Movement party had ruined the country’s economy and were seeking “new opportunities for robbery”.

“If there’s anyone who doesn’t remember it, we will remind them,” he said, grinning.

Ter-Petrosian stood down as president in 1998 after leading government figures, who included Kocharian, then prime minister, and the interior minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is now prime minister and is the administration’s favoured presidential candidate, opposed his plans to resolve the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.

Public television has already begun to broadcast negative coverage of Ter-Petrosian. A Sunday evening programme called 360 Degrees took viewers back to the former president’s time in office, when the country was undergoing an acute economic crisis. For 22 minutes, the program showed gloomy black-and-white footage of those times, reminding viewers of a series of political murders that had been committed. The blood shown on the screen was made more vividly red for effect.

Several television reports about the October 26 rally showed pictures of Freedom Square half-empty, apparently using footage of scenes shot before the demonstration started.

The organisers of the rally told IWPR that almost all television channels had refused to air a video announcement about the forthcoming event, even though it had been sanctioned by the authorities.

Nikol Pashinian, chief editor of the daily newspaper Haikakan Zhamanak and a supporter of Ter-Petrosian, told IWPR that by doing so the authorities had broken the law on the conduct of public meetings.

The authorities also responded with heavy-handed tactics to a march held by Ter-Petrosian supporter on October 23 to publicise the rally. Demonstrators clashed with police on one of Yerevan’s central streets, and several marchers and four policemen were injured. The marchers said later that the policemen had demanded that they stop handing out leaflets and surrender their megaphone.

“This is an agony, a nervous convulsion [on the part of the authorities] which is not going to stop us,” Babken Ararktsian, a former speaker of the Armenian parliament and an ally of Ter-Petrosian, told IWPR.

“What a panicky state of mind the authorities must be in to issue orders like these,” said Hrant Ter-Abrahamian from the pro-Ter-Petrosian movement Alternative. “Imagine a march involving 50 people – not a mass event at all - and special-purpose [riot] troops trying to break it up with tear gas and truncheons. It’s an ridiculous, absurd situation.”

Eleven demonstrators were detained during the march, including leading members of Alternative, Pashinian, and another chief editor - Shogher Matevosian of the Chorord Ishkhanutiun newspaper - as well as a number of teenagers.

Police subsequently prevented a 150-strong group of protesters – including politicians, lawyers and human rights activists – to approach the police station where the detainees were being held.

Larisa Alaverdian of the opposition Zharangutiun party, and a former human rights ombudsman of Armenian, said it was unlawful to obstruct a member of the parliament from entering a state institution.

Although lawyers were not given access to the detainees, the current ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, was admitted. At around ten in the evening, Ter-Petrosian appeared on the scene, to be greeted with shouts of “Levon! Levon!” He crossed the police cordon and entered the police station. Once inside, he declared he would not leave until the detainees were released.

Just after three the next morning, Ter-Petrosian emerged from the police station together with the marchers, who had been released, and left accompanied by supporters chanting “Fight, fight to the end!” and “Levon! Levon!”

On October 30, criminal charges were brought against five of the marchers.

One provincial television station broke ranks and gave airtime to Ter-Petrosian’s comeback.

Vahan Khachatrian, director of the independent television Gala, based in Armenia’s second largest city Gyumri, said his company first came under pressure after it aired a statement by Ter-Petrosian to mark Armenian Independence Day on September 21.

“Then we gave airtime to Nikol Pashinian, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Haikakan Zhamanak and a member of the Alternative movement, whereupon our TV company found itself the centre of attention of the tax agencies,” Khachatrian told IWPR.

The head of Armenia’s national television and radio commission, Grigor Amalian, dismissed as ludicrous the allegations that Gala TV was being harassed.

“State institutions and this commission in particular are not persecuting the Gala television channel for any political purposes,” he told the Haiots Ashkhar newspaper.

Ter-Petrosian himself declared that he would henceforth regard any harassment of his supporters as an infringement of Armenia’s electoral code.

“From now on, any act of violence or terror on the part of the tax authorities against my allies will be seen as a violation of citizens’ voting rights, and will be made public as such to our society and to international institutions,” Ter-Petrosian told the October 26 rally.

Diana Markosian is a correspondent with the news website of A1+ television.

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