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Violent Start to Armenian Election Campaign

Shootings, arson and political machinations undermine hopes of an untroubled election race.
Within days of its launch, campaigning for the Armenian parliamentary election has been tarnished by violence, feuding between candidates, and an apparent attempt to oust one candidate by bringing in another with the same name.

April 8 marked the start of the official campaign for the May 12 poll. Two parties, the Republican Party, which currently has the largest number of seats in the national assembly, and the recently-established Prosperous Armenia are dominating the campaign. Both have support from leading government officials.

Just five days before the campaign launch, the political temperature increased with an assassination attempt against Vardan Ghukasian, the mayor of the country’s second largest city Gyumri. Ghukasyan is a member of the Republican Party.

Police said Ghukasian’s Mercedes and other cars accompanying it were sprayed with gunfire on the Yerevan-Gyumri highway, and were hit by 77 bullets. Four bodyguards died in the attack, while Ghukasian and his deputy mayor Gagik Manukian were hospitalised with serious gunshot wounds.

Ghukasian had been on his way back to Gyumri after attending a meeting of the Republican Party’s ruling council in Yerevan, at which Defence Minister Serge Sarkisian was formally nominated for the post of prime minister.

A politician from the party, Ashot Aghababian, said, “These shots were aimed at the Republican Party of Armenia. The incident came immediately after a party meeting rather than at any other time”.

The head of Ghukasian’s office, Artyom Mazmanian, said the mayor had no enemies, nor had he received death threats.

Local media reported that Ghukasian was planning to switch allegiance to the rival Prosperous Armenia party, led by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. The party is the Republicans’ main challenger in the forthcoming election, and is widely believed to enjoy the backing of President Robert Kocharian.

Republican Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov flatly denied the rumour, saying, “That’s out of the question. It’s a flight of fancy.”

The town of Echmiadzin – a town best known as the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, but which has a heavy military presence – has also been hit by election-related violence.

At about midnight on April 8, Hakob Hakobian, the incumbent member of parliament who is running again in the constituency, came under attack. Hakobian is a member of the governing Republican Party but has a reputation for independence.

He recalled, “I was with a friend, and as we were leaving our car we saw a BMW in the street, but we couldn’t read the number plate in the dark. We had moved about six metres away from our car when the shots rang out. We barely managed to take refuge in [our] office nearby and lock the iron doors.”

The same night, a fire broke out at a precision instruments factory owned by another candidate, Susanna Harutyunian, whose headquarters was located on the premises of the plant.

Hakobian and Harutyunian blamed another candidate, Sedrak Saroyan (also known as Seyran Saroyan), a retired major-general in the Armenian army, for what happened to them.

“If Hakobian and Harutyunian are eliminated, Saroyan will become a member of parliament [even] if turnout is only 30 per cent,” said Karlen Khachatrian, who is running Hakobian’s campaign

Harutyunian is certain the factory was set on fire to scare her off. “I’ve been repeatedly terrorised, and even offered a lot of money, to get me to withdraw from the campaign. But when they realise that isn’t working, they resort to such measures,” she said.

Saroyan denied the allegations, saying his rivals were “stirring things up with the sole aim of creating a fuss and promoting themselves.”

A spokesman for Saroyan’s campaign, Hakob Martuni, said his candidate was a man of strict military discipline who would never stoop to such tactics. Instead, Martuni suggested that the attacks had been staged by the other candidates themselves.

“They saw they were losing and they panicked,” he said. “They’re shooting at themselves.”

Simon Mkrtchian, a 43-year-old resident of the town’s Zvartnots district, commented, “It’s no surprise that the campaign in Echmiadzin kicked off with gunfire - it’s what we were expecting. That’s the way problems are resolved in this town; it’s [like] a real military dictatorship here.”

The Echmiadzin campaign has been made even more complex because there are not three but four candidates – as well as the local Hakobian, there is another candidate who is not only from the same Republican Party but bears exactly the same name.

This second Hakob Hakobian was brought in from Yerevan in what some say was a deliberate attempt to confuse voters. The new arrival proceeded to accuse his namesake and the two other candidates of forging some of the signatures a candidate needs to gather in order to be allowed to stand.

Graphologists were brought in to analyse the disputed signatures, and on April 10 a court in the town of Armavir disqualified both Harutyunian and the original Hakobian from standing.

Neither attended the hearing. According to Harutyunian, “It was obvious how it was going to end, so there was no point in my going there.”

She said the verdict was bad news for democracy in Armenia, “What it means is that everything in this country is organised from the top down. How can we talk about democracy and fair elections?”

In a further blow to the local Hakobian, three of his supporters were arrested in a police search of the homes of friends and relatives that involved up to 80 officers and lasted from April 9 to 10.

Events in Echmiadzin caused a stir in political circles in Yerevan, only 20 kilometres away. Opposition member of parliament Shavarsh Kocharian described them as “a shameful episode”.

“None of it serves our country’s stated aim of moving towards fair and democratic elections,” he said.

One of the leaders of the Republican Party in parliament, Galust Sahakian, tried to play down the incident, saying that the court’s ruling must be respected.

“Hakobian is my friend and… quite an important political player and a serious businessman,” he said.

But Sahakian added, “You can be involved in politics outside parliament as well. Let’s not judge the overall standard and substance of the election campaign solely by the shots fired in the [Echmiadzin] constituency.”

The disqualified Hakobian then played an unexpected card – offering to back the incomer from Yerevan, whom he believes is merely a stalking-horse for Saroyan and may pull out before the election takes place.

“Since I blame Saroyan for all this, and the Yerevan candidate is merely obeying orders, I have decided to support him [the other Hakobian] by campaigning against the person who gave him his orders,” he said.

If the outsider does pull out, Hakobian urged his supporters not to vote for Saroyan.

The signs are that violence will continue to plague the election campaign. Early on April 12, an office belonging to the Prosperous Armenia party in Yerevan was hit by an explosion, apparently caused by a bomb placed outside the door. The party office was destroyed, as was a nearby shop. RFE/RL reported that a second office belonging to the same party was also hit by a blast in the capital. There were no casualties in either incident.

Gohar Mkrtchian is a pseudonym used by a freelance reporter in Echmiadzin.