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Armenia: Opposition Divided Over Kocharian's Standing For President

By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian

Yerevan, 11 February 1998 (RFE/RL) - A decision to stand in the early presidential election, announced Monday by Armenia's Acting President and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, has received mixed reaction from three opposition leaders.

Vazgen Manukian, the leader of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) - and viewed as Kocharian's most formidable opponent - told RFE/RL that it is up to "lawyers and the society" to decide whether Kocharian qualifies as a candidate in the early presidential ballot slated March 16.

Armenia's Constitution requires presidential candidates to be citizens of Armenia, who have lived in the country for at least ten consecutive years. Kocharian comes from Nagorno-Karabakh, and, until recently, has not been considered an Armenian citizen.

But, the leader of the opposition Self-Determination Union (IM), prominent Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikian, backs Kocharian's decision, saying the constitutional provision is not applicable, because Armenian law on citizenship was adopted only two years ago.

Another key candidate, Armenian Communist Party leader Sergei Badalian, criticized the move as "dangerous," and questioned its conformity with the constitution.

The three candidates met Kocharian over the weekend to discuss ways to ensure free-and-fair elections. Kocharian has pledged a democratic election.

Asked about campaign spending, the candidates told RFE/RL it will not exceed several thousand dollars. Badalian gave the lowest estimate of "roughly $7,000."

Manukian and Kocharian are regarded as front-runners in the vote, whereas endorsements by Hayrikian and Badalian might prove crucial for a possible run-off. Manukian still claims he is the rightful winner of the flawed presidential election in September, 1995, which electoral officials said President Ter-Petrosyan won.

But, another candidate might emerge.

Vahan Hovannisian, the popular leader of Armenia's Dashnak party (HHD) yesterday was released from prison, after nearly three years behind bars on charges he had planned a coup. Hovannisian's release came a day after the re-registration of the HHD, following its three-year suspension. Hovannisian said it is up to the party to decide if he should stand in next month's election.

Sources tell RFE/RL that the Dashnaks are likely to support Kocharian's candidacy.

It was Kocharian who pledged to pursue re-registration of the HHD, and to review the prison sentences of its members, shortly after he assumed powers as Acting President last week (Feb 3).

Observers say Kocharian can also expect support from the Parliament's new majority group, Yerkrapah ('Volunteers'). This group is led by Karabakh war veterans in Armenia. The group in Parliaament that had supported Ter-Petrosyan, the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) lost its majority, as dozens of its deputies defected last week to Yerkrapah.