Prague, 27 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition leaders facing prosecution, tanks and troops in the streets, violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators -- that is the scene in Yerevan following Armenia's first presidential elections since the Soviet Union's collapse.
Last Sunday's voting, which could have provided evidence of Armenia's democratic development, is instead turning into an embarrassment for incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and a potentially serious setback for the country's young democracy.
Early yesterday, Ter-Petrosyan went on national television to announce that unauthorized demonstrations would be banned after opposition supporters stormed the parliament the night before, beating the parliament's chairman and his deputy. An aide to Ter-Petrosyan, Zhirair Liparitian, told reporters today that one demonstrator and one soldier died in the clash. Western news agencies reported at least 20 demonstrators injured in the incident.
Hours after the president's address, tanks and troops appeared around parliament as it met in emergency session to strip eight deputies, including opposition presidential candidate and former prime minister Vazgen Manukyan, of their immunity from prosecution. Soon after, an RFE/RL correspondent in Yerevan reported seeing Manukyan in the custody of authorities. An Interior Ministry spokesman (unnamed) told Reuters only that Manukyan was being sought while six deputies have been detained.
The trouble began shortly after balloting got underway last Sunday when the opposition claimed vote fraud, saying ballot secrecy was being violated and that ballot boxes were being stuffed. They also claimed that military personnel were being told how to vote.
Tensions increased further after the nation's election commission said Ter-Petrosyan had won with some 52 percent of the vote, more than enough to avoid a runoff against Manukyan who, the commission said, had received 41 percent. But four commission members dissented, saying that Manukyan had actually won.
Divisions about the legitimacy of the election also split a team of international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The group's official report says there were "very serious irregularities" in the voting. It says one of the most serious violations involved the stealing of a ballot box in one Yerevan precinct which Manukyan was poised to win by some 300 votes. But the group's report went on to say that the violations "do not in themselves constitute a systematic attempt to deny the will of the people."
However, one member of the observer team, requesting anonymity, told Reuters that "the vast majority" of team members were unhappy with the report and said it "tried too hard to avoid embarrassing the government." The observer said: "what most of us saw...was systematic fraud on a massive scale." Another observer told Reuters the report should have clearly identified supporters of Ter-Petrosyan as being responsible for the irregularities.
Simon Osborn, head of the OSCE observers, told RFE/RL by phone from Yerevan that his group is attempting to mediate between the government and opposition. He said they are trying to find out, in his words, "whether there is anything within the elections process itself" that could lead to a calming of the situation.
Current events put Ter-Petrosyan and Manukyan on opposite sides of a seemingly growing divide, but in the late 1980s they were allied in opposing Soviet rule. In 1990, Ter-Petrosyan easily won republic-wide elections and governed Armenia's transition to independence the next year. Manukyan early on served as his prime minister.
Since gaining power, Ter-Petrosyan has closed the opposition Dashnak Tsutyun Party two years ago and has cracked down on independent and opposition publications.
More recently, Ter-Petrosyan has presided over what analysts say has been a marginal improvement in Armenian living standards. Until opposition forces recently rallied around Manukyan's candidacy, it was expected that Ter-Petrosyan would win re-election handily. But Manukyan found themes that seemed to resonate with voters, including a promise to raise wages and pensions dramatically. He also promised to reduce the powers of the presidency.
Responding to perceptions that Manukyan was gaining, Ter-Petrosyan made increasingly heated comments before Sunday's voting. Two days before the election, the president went on national television and warned of fascism if Manukyan prevailed.
Despite Manukyan's call for closer ties with Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin weighed in on Ter-Petrosyan's behalf. Itar-Tass quoted Chernomyrdin as saying in an election eve interview on Armenian television that the incumbent was, in his words, "a modest, reliable, serious and thoughtful man."
On Thursday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent a congratulatory telegram to Ter-Petrosyan. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Demurin quoted Yeltsin as saying that the Armenian people had supported "the continuation of reform in the name of freedom, democracy and prosperity."
The United States condemned Wednesday night's demonstrations but has made no comment yet on the conduct of the voting. Other capitals have also been largely silent on the election.