Fear Stalks Armenian District on Eve of Poll

Regional governor accused of intimidating opponents, leaving voters with few choices in assembly ballot.

Fear Stalks Armenian District on Eve of Poll

Regional governor accused of intimidating opponents, leaving voters with few choices in assembly ballot.

Saturday, 12 May, 2007

Armenia’s southern mountainous region of Syunik used to be loved for its spectacular scenery, but nowadays it is more associated with its controversial “marzpet” or governor who is making waves during the current parliamentary election campaign.

“The marzpet of Syunik is the master of the situation - in the negative sense, of course,” said Harutiun Hambardzumian, head of the non-governmental organisation The Choice is Yours. “He controls everything. The authorities organise the elections perfectly so that there are no evident violations of law. But people are scared and terrorised. The atmosphere of fear is so strong that people do not dare to revolt, they do what they are told.”

The governor, who is appointed by the central government in Yerevan, is Suren Khachatrian, more commonly known by his nickname Litska, a modified form of the Russian word “lisa” or fox, signifying his alleged cunning.

In recent elections, the city of Goris 250 kilometres south of Yerevan, has always elected the candidate of the pro-government Republican Party of Armenia, backed by Khachatrian.

The head of the regional electoral commission Arman Stepanian says that he is proud of the high turnout his district always enjoys, and that he has never seen any irregularities in the polls.

The candidate for the forthcoming May 12 election for the opposition nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party - formerly a member of the governing coalition of Armenia - disputes this, and is highly critical of the governor’s role in elections.

“In Syunik, especially in Goris, there have been many gross, outrageous violations of people’s rights,” said Samvel Harutiunian. “Syunik rightly has the most negative electoral record in our country.”

There are many serious allegations against the governor and his family, several of them raised by the Yerevan newspaper Aravot. Khachatrian strongly rejects them all, while conceding that several of his relatives have got into trouble with the law.

The governor’s nephew, Mayis Khachatrian, is serving a jail sentence in Yerevan, having been transferred there from Goris prison on health grounds. He was convicted of having stabbed 33-year-old Hovhanes Badalian to death. Other relatives have been accused of acts of aggression and violence by the Yerevan media but have not been prosecuted.

IWPR tried to put the allegations to the governor, but was unable to get an interview.

Although an election campaign is in progress, the opposition parties have barely been able to hold any meetings in the towns of Syunik - Goris, Sisian and Kapan.

When Vazgen Manukian, a former Armenian prime minister and a veteran of the Soviet-era independence struggle, visited Kapan, he was denied both a hotel room and prevented from organising a meeting with voters. Manukian said that the manager of a hotel in Goris where he tried to get a room told him he received got angry calls from the police asking why he was giving shelter to an “enemy”.

The press secretary of the opposition Heritage Party, Hovsep Khurshudian, said they were constantly receiving alarming reports from Syunik and had lost the services of almost 40 party activists who came under pressure. He said that Syunik was the only place in Armenia where voters were even afraid to take campaign leaflets from activists.

“As soon as they saw us approaching, they just turned around and left,” he said. “It’s a feudal regime here, it’s unacceptable for Armenia.”

Khachatrian said he knew nothing about harassment of Manukian and that no one in his district was being intimidated. “I’ve been elected parliamentary deputy three times by majority vote,” he told Aravot. “I’ve been elected mayor and head of city administration, but with no violations. We do not pressure anybody. People have their own views.”

The local leader of the Heritage Party, Mher Kumunts, blames opposition parties and the public for being passive and colluding in the climate of fear. “The weakness of the people is abused by other forces who act more aggressively,” he said. “We ourselves are the creators of our fear; we wouldn’t be scared by others if we weren’t afraid ourselves.”

Meanwhile, residents feel they have little choice come the weekend election. One local approached by IWPR in Goris market said, “Everyone here says they will vote for the Republican Party because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Gayane Mkrtchian is a reporter with ArmeniaNow, www.armenianow.com

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