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
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
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