- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 February 21, 2003 

Outside Eye: A non-Armenian's view of life in his adopted home

After boasting - as early as four months ago and as recently as Wednesday - that he would be re-elected without a runoff, Robert Kocharyan may be just days away from losing his presidency to a ghost.

Stepan Demirchyan got enough votes Wednesday to force a runoff, but it was his slain father, Karen, whose reputation earned them.

Armenia has unexpectedly become a boiler of potential political upheaval bubbling under one of winter's biggest snows.

Into that snow on Wednesday voters went to speak their minds and again on Thursday, some 10,000 or so, to shout their claims that their voting rights were abused.

Turns out that foreign observers agreed with the protesters' claims. And now not only is the President's career in jeopardy but his legacy polished by a reign over historic economic growth is threatened with the tarnish of his having staged a corrupt campaign and still losing.

In the few words he managed for Thursday's rally, Demirchyan promised that his first order of business if elected President would be to punish those who tried to steal the election from him.

His comrades in opposition used words such as "rape" and "political corpses" to emphasize their commitment to the cause. All the rhetoric needed was a "smoke him out" reference and it could have been a Bush vs. Bin Laden rally.

The politics of revenge may determine Armenia's next President, but even the most anti-Kocharyan voter must wonder what kind of house Demirchyan would set up once he'd cleaned the current one.

It would likely be a house into which veteran statesmen such as Vazgen Manoukyan, Artashes Geghamyan and Raffi Hovhanissian would be welcomed. And their association may, second to his name, be Demirchyan's strongest credential.

In Armenia's last Presidential election in 1998, it was Karen Demirchyan and Kocharyan in a hotly contested runoff. (Karen Demirchyan, who became Speaker of Parliament, was one of eight leaders assassinated in 1999.)

Nostalgia for a past that is no longer possible in independent Armenia has thrust Stepan Demirchyan into a role once held by his Communist leader father. And if the people who are trying to put him in power are merely voting for "the good old days", then disappointment can be the expected fruit of their campaign season.

No one must be more shocked than Robert Kocharyan these days, unless it is those who have ridden his reign to their own places of power and may now be two weeks away from abrupt career changes.

I don't know anybody who likes Robert Kocharyan. I do know, however, people who voted for him reluctantly because the alternatives were not strong enough to win their confidence. I doubt anything will happen before March 5to change those votes.

But it must concern Kocharyan supporters that, even with the privilege of power afforded him to abuse voting legislation (as a joint report by observers from OSCE, ODIHR and PACE has confirmed), he failed not only to receive a mandate but even to win in the manner he said he would.

Long before the well-meaning West sent its overseers here to judge Armenia's ability to behave democratically, measures - some through the subtle means of legislation and others as blatant as a bullet - were being taken to assure a Kocharyan victory.

You have to be here awhile to see the pieces fall into place. I hadn't been here long enough to see the cause and effect potential last April when the only oppositional television station, A1+, was denied a broadcast license.

While local colleagues were trying to convince me of Government conspiracy, I argued that the television company simply failed to produce a good business plan.

At the time one local journalist told me this was the beginning of the Presidential campaign. I now see that she was right, as on Wednesday, State-sanctioned television and a Foreign Ministry-supported website proclaimed a calm and clean election while all day long our newsroom and other media had received reports to the contrary of ballot stuffing, outright beatings of journalists and proxy observers and even of one ballot box that was stolen.

Most of the country relies on television for its news, and, in the absence of A1+ there was no broadcast that didn't follow the Party line.

It is no coincidence, either, that a decision on assigning a new frequency that might have gone to A1+ - which should have been made in November - was postponed until after the election, by a Commission that is appointed by the President.

And speaking of postponements: On January 17, two days after an attorney claimed he would produce evidence implicating Kocharyan sympathizers in the 1999 Parliament assassinations, the trial of the accused was put on hold and - after more than a year of steady and almost daily testimony - has not had a session since.

If at first an outsider is naïve about how things work here, the pendulum might later swing to paranoia.

Still, I wonder too why in a country as small as this, the public has yet to be given results of a census taken in October 2001. The entire population of Russia was counted and figures released in two months. Yet in this little place we're supposed to believe that the process takes 19 months - as a report is expected in June, after the Parliamentary elections. Might an up-to-date account of the numbers make it impossible for the Kocharyan camp to have gotten the votes claimed?

In any case, whether by his own manipulation or the Opposition's impotence, Robert Kocharyan got nearly twice as many votes as the next man, and was only 0.2 percent away from the 50 percent (plus one vote) required to win.

He was only about 4,500 votes shy of the combined votes of his eight opponents. Again today his promoters are confidently predicting victory in the run off.

But in the dimmed sun of bright campaign promise, long shadows fall from his term in office and chill a disenfranchised citizenry who at best might be tolerant though it deserves to be hopeful.

He has run on a platform that recounts five years of economic growth. And it is undeniable that Armenia is in better fiscal condition than at anytime since independence, with evidence that the trend will continue.

But consider this: Who but a total incompetent or outright adversary could stop the growth, considering that so much of it comes from international aid, out to buy good will and regional stability, and from a Diaspora eager to build a country regardless of who runs it?

And who has profited from the economic boom? Certainly not the thousands who have fled the country during Kocharyan's administration, so perhaps others, including Government Ministers who make routine gambling trips to Moscow and own banks, hotels and discos.

It is known here that the President's wife recently bought one of the privatized hospitals and that his former political allies now running Karabakh are in line to buy two others, one of which, a source tells me, was ordered privatized by the President over the objection of Parliament.

Maybe there's nothing wrong with former Communists capitalizing on capitalism, except that anybody who has so much as paid off a traffic cop knows that in this country business success comes from skirting the law. And even the perception of corruptibility damages a public's ability to believe its leadership.

The argument is well made that a flourish of new business brings jobs and that "trickle down" economics could save the middle class.

I hope that is true. But many of us would like it if the trickle didn't so often stop in the pockets of Ministers and mobsters whose loyalty to the man in charge is bought by guarantees of personal financial excess.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that Robert Kocharyan dominates the political scene here today only because his two principal rivals for power were murdered on the floor of the Parliament. Whether either of the assassinated would have led Armenia any better will forever remain unknown. The "martyred" were also flawed men.

But one left a ghost. And whether or not he is Presidential material, he has risen to have haunting effects on the plans of this President and his men.


Observers say elections fall short of international standards

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Voting day turned from fair to foul at some precincts

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The son also rises

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Geghamyan Goes from Candidate to Kingmaker

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  Photos of the week
  Photo of the week: Talk Time
Click on the photo above to enlarge

Photo of the week: Talk Time
Click on the photo above to enlarge

Hope and Assurance

It has been a season of many emotions, Decision 2003. Doves of peace were offered and officers to enforce that peace were stationed around the Central Elections Commission.



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