Armenian Opposition Party Locked out

Popular ex-foreign minister blames the president for shutting down his office.

Armenian Opposition Party Locked out

Popular ex-foreign minister blames the president for shutting down his office.

A month after his party’s office was abruptly sealed, prominent Armenian opposition politician Raffi Hovannisian says he is no nearer to regaining entry to the premises.

Hovannisian, chairman of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party, blames Armenian president Robert Kocharian personally for the standoff, but says being locked out is “not the end of the world”.

The doors of the Heritage Party’s office were sealed on March 4, while Hovannisian was out of the country. Since then all its documents and its official stamp have remained locked inside. Party officials say its activities are effectively suspended so long as it has no access to its documents, electronic data, communications equipment and other property.

The official explanation is that the Paronian Theatre, in whose building the office is located, now belongs to the government department for state property, so the premises have to be vacated.

Heritage Party officials say they did receive a note to that effect from the theatre’s director a week before March 4, but were given assurances that they would be allowed time to resolve the matter.

"He said, 'Yes, we will wait' - and then this happened," Gevorg Kalenchian, the director of the party's central office, told IWPR.

Theatre manager Karo Shahbazian denied that there was any political motivation behind the lockout.

"The building has been transferred to the department for state property management and I am obliged to hand the property over to the government," Shahbazian told IWPR. “I told them [Heritage] to vacate the building but they refused. That is why I have put another lock on.”

However, Hovannisian says he is in no doubt that this is part of an officially-inspired campaign to stifle his party. He said his appeal to Prime Minister Andranik Margarian to intervene in the dispute had been met with silence.

"This is the latest mean-spirited order… that reflects the essence of the regime, and that we got instead of an honest answer," said Hovannisian.

Responding to Hovannisian's accusations, presidential spokesman Viktor Soghomonian told IWPR, "The president and his administration have not, are not, and will never be interested in Raffi Hovannisian."

Hovannisian, 47, is the only major opposition politician in Armenia to come from the diaspora. The son of famous historian Richard Hovannisian, he was born in the United States city of Fresno, and was the first foreign minister of independent Armenia in 1991-92. The year after he left office, he founded the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies.

Many experts believe the office closure is a preventive strike against the party ahead of next year’s parliamentary election. Hovhannisian is also widely expected to stand in the 2008 presidential ballot.

"It is clear that this is not a property dispute, and that it’s a political rather than legal struggle, linked to the parliamentary election," said Alexander Iskandarian, political analyst and director of the Caucasus Media Institute.

Another political analyst, Yervand Bozoian, added, "The opposition has not been a problem for the authorities so far, but everyone understands that it could become a problem under certain circumstances. Something similar could happen to any opposition figure tomorrow."

Hovannisian has been in conflict with the authorities since 2003, and especially enraged them by actively campaigning against last year’s constitutional referendum.

He tried to stand for president in 2003, but the central electoral commission refused to register him as a candidate. The constitution says that presidential contenders have to have been Armenian citizens for at least ten years, but Hovhannisian was granted citizenship only in 2001.

Denied a chance to stand, Hovannisian took part in protests against what the opposition said was election fraud, and founded the Heritage Party in 2002.

In November last year, security officers searched Hovhannisian at Yerevan airport, claiming they were looking for documents containing state secrets. The following month, Heritage member Edgar Hakobian was among 30 participants in a protest rally who were arrested by police.

At an opposition rally on December 9, Hovannisian read out 21 questions addressed to President Kocharian. He asked whether Kocharian had been involved in contract killings, suggesting there were unanswered questions about his involvement in an attack on parliament in October 1999, when the then prime minister and parliamentary speaker were killed. He also asked what property, businesses and funds the president, his wife and other members family members possessed.

Kocharian’s spokesman Soghomonian told the Haiots Ashkharh newspaper that "this scrap of paper" from Hovhannisian was not worthy of the president’s attention. But the accusation triggered a media campaign against the opposition leader, with one newspaper article suggesting that the questions had been written by the US security services.

In a country with no reliable opinion polls, it is hard to judge the true level of support for Hovannisian, but he has an unusually positive image in Armenia. The closure of Heritage’s office led to an open letter from 18 parties and non-government organisations demanding that the party be allowed to resume work immediately.

Iskandarian believes that Heritage’s clash with the authorities is a symptom of the struggle between a weak governing regime and an equally weak opposition.

"The authorities' weakness lies in the fact that they become nervous for no reason, and fear things they should not be afraid of," said Iskandarian. “They take forceful steps for which there is no need. When an opponent's office is closed down in this manner, it’s a sign of weakness, not strength.”

Hovannisian says he has not decided yet whether to take part in the 2007 parliamentary election, but insisted that “a tent is enough” for him to carry on in politics.

"We have paid the rent and all the rest meticulously. There are no grounds for evicting us. We will fight to the end,” he said. “However, if we are deprived of these premises that were given to us in 1994, it won’t be a problem. We will continue to work at home.”

Vahan Ishkhanian is a reporter for the Armenianow online weekly in Yerevan.
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