Violence Mars Preparations for Armenian Poll

Several attacks on activists have revived memories of deadly clashes that followed elections last year.

Violence Mars Preparations for Armenian Poll

Several attacks on activists have revived memories of deadly clashes that followed elections last year.

Ofeliya Margarian, a 54-year-old activist for the opposition Armenian National Congress, had noticed a black car following her group of campaigners for some time before the attack started.

She says young men, wearing dark glasses, ran at them as they approached the headquarters of the governing Republican Party on May 11 in the suburb of Avan, and sought to hand out leaflets.

She and other women tried to stop their attackers from hitting the men in their group, but ended up targets themselves.

“One of the men picked up a big stone from the ground and hit me on the head,” she said. She needed stitches, and was concussed, while two other women were hospitalised.

It was a nasty sign of how the race to win the first election to be mayor of Yerevan has sucked in the country’s major political parties. In the election, voters will pick a “council of elders” for Yerevan, which will in turn select the city mayor from among its number.

Although the position is largely administrative, whoever wins the election on May 31 will gain control of the capital, and with it 38 per cent of Armenia’s population, a budget of 500 million US dollars, and half of the country’s gross domestic product.

The Armenian National Congress says the violence showed the government was prepared to use any means to secure control for its candidate Gagik Beglarian, who has headed the central region of the city for the last seven years, and whose candidature is backed by President Serzh Sargsian.

“Such criminal behaviour by the authorities demonstrates their political weakness and shows that their only remaining bulwarks in society are small and medium hooligans,” the Armenian National Congress said in a statement.

It says that just a day before the attack another group of youths assaulted its activists while they were handing out leaflets. Some of the young men, they say, told them not to bother campaigning there and that “Avan’s boss is Taron”.

For the activists, that was decisive proof that they were dealing with Taron Margarian, who heads the administration in the Avan region and is second on the Republican Party’s list for the elections.

Margarian himself denies any connection, and the Republican Party says none of its activists were involved in this or any other incident.

The city police told IWPR a criminal case had been opened into the incident, but none of the assailants had been found.

The attacks were part of a worrying trend in Yerevan, which has included assaults on several journalists and a lawyer, as well as on political activists, and have revived memories of deadly clashes in the capital that followed elections in Armenia last year.

The only international observers of the polls – a team from the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – have already warned that tensions between the parties risk undermining the viability of the polls.

“We are concerned that the real needs of the citizens of Yerevan could be brushed aside because of this confrontation,” said Fabio Pellegrini, a member of the Council of Europe’s team, at the end of the mission to check up on progress at the start of May.

A total of seven parties are running, but the Armenian National Congress is the Republican Party’s only real rival in the elections, according to pollsters.

Two of the Republican Party’s partners in the governing coalition – Prosperous Armenia and the Country of Law – are standing in the mayoral elections separately. The Armenian Revolutionary Foundation Dashnaktsutiun, which was previously a ruling partner but which now says it is in opposition, is also standing. None of the three is expected to do well in the polls.

According to Hovhanness Manukian, an analyst from the Armenian Centre for National Investigations, the opposition’s decision to unite largely behind one candidate – rather than be fragmented as it has been in the past – may explain the increased tension in the run up to the polls.

Manukian says the opposition appeared to be succeeding in mobilising its supporters, which could force the government to falsify the results if it wants to be sure of success. Whoever ended up winning, he says, was likely to meet protests from the other side, but would improve the lives of the capital’s residents.

“Even in a country with an abortive political system like Armenia, an elected head of the city can’t be worse than an appointed one,” he said.

The Armenian National Congress list is headed by Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenian’s first post-independence president, while second place is taken by Stepan Demirchian, head of the Popular Party.

Ter-Petrosian is one of the few opposition leaders who was not detained following massive protests in central Yerevan in February and March last year. When the police moved in to crush the protests, ten people were killed, raising tensions in the country and worries over any democratic future.

The anniversary of the violence passed calmly this year, and Ter-Petrosian has pledged to avoid violence in his attempts to unseat the government, and has even hinted he could join a coalition administration. Nevertheless, he has warned Sargsian to ensure that the Yerevan elections are free and fair.

“Securing the legality of the elections remains for Serzh Sargsian a last chance to win some authority with the population of Armenia and the world community,” he told an opposition protest on May 1.

He warned that if the elections were as fraudulent as he considers those of 2008 to have been, then the state could be shaken by a blow it might not recover from.

The Heritage party, an opposition party with seats in parliament which is headed by former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian, attempted to forge a joint campaign with the Armenian National Congress, but the talks collapsed and it resolved to boycott the Yerevan elections. As a represented party, however, it has a right to a place on electoral commissions and will monitor the polls.

It intends to set up special mobile monitoring units to check on the legality of the election, and to collect information on violations in an information centre.

The Council of Europe team, however, has said it has been reassured the government will do all that it can to ensure the polls are fair.

“Despite the concerns which were raised during our mission, we are confident that the Armenian authorities will do their utmost to conduct these elections in a decent way in line with European standards,” concluded Michel Guegan, a French member of the council’s three-man mission.

Rita Karapetian is a journalist from the news agency Noyan Tapan. Seda Muradyan, IWPR Armenia country director, also contributed to this report.
Support our journalists