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Caucasus Report: March 10, 2003


10 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 10

BRAZENING IT OUT. The 5 March Armenian presidential runoff confirmed the worst fears of both the Armenian opposition and international bodies tasked with monitoring respect for, and violations of, human rights. Instead of acting systematically to preclude a repetition of the ballot-box stuffing and other violations that marred the first-round vote on 19 February, the Armenian authorities presided over equally blatant irregularities that, according to preliminary official returns, resulted in incumbent President Robert Kocharian's re-election with 67.5 percent of votes cast -- double the number cast for his rival, People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian.

Moreover, the Armenian leadership has downplayed or rejected outright international criticism of the second-round vote and has laid the blame for those scattered violations that it concedes did take place on the opposition. Officials have further accused the opposition of being unable to accept a fair defeat and of seeking to undermine domestic political stability for their own aims.

The leitmotiv of international response was disappointment and concern over the damage to Armenia's democratic credentials. U.S. diplomat Peter Eicher, who headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Election Observation Mission, said following the second-round vote: "I am disappointed. We expected better." In a statement released on 7 March, the U.S. State Department similarly said Washington is "deeply disappointed" by the reported irregularities. "We call on the [Armenian] government to get on the road to building a democratic Armenia, beginning with a full and transparent investigation of election regularities, accountability for those responsible, and other steps to restore public confidence," the statement said. Among other irregularities, that report listed ballot-box stuffing, the "merry-go-round" system whereby voters cast ballots successively at several different polling stations, inappropriate voting by the military, and the intimidation of opposition proxies or their expulsion from polling stations.

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe President Peter Schieder for his part said on 7 March that "following a series of irregularities reported after the first round, we made a series of requests to ensure better conduct of the second round. We very much regret that those requests were not met.... The full extent of responsibility for, and the impact of, the irregularities are yet to be determined, but it is already clear that they cannot remain without consequences."

Meanwhile, opposition politicians and other commentators have explained in greater detail their grounds for alleging that the outcome of the ballot was falsified by means of large-scale ballot-box stuffing and adjusting vote tallies during the tabulation process. Demirchian's campaign manager Grigor Harutiunian told journalists late on 6 March that according to HZhK data, only 1.1 million voters cast their ballots, which was 400,000 fewer than the 1.5 million claimed by the Central Election Commission (CEC). On the day of the runoff, Armenian newspapers published photographs of wads of ballot papers already marked in favor of Kocharian. Harutiunian said that in some polling stations, local election commissions illegally decided that they would register no more than 100 ballots cast for Demirchian, irrespective of the actual number.

Following the first round of voting, Noyan Tapan commentator David Petrosian similarly questioned the official data for the number of registered voters and for voter turnout. Petrosian pointed out that the number of registered voters (2,295,330) is larger than the number of registered passport holders (2,246,014) and that some passport holders are not old enough to vote. He therefore estimated the maximum number of voters in Armenia (allowing for the hundreds of thousands who have left the country in search of employment) at no higher than 1.8 million, almost half a million fewer than the official figure. Moreover, Petrosian argued that the official figures on voter turnout are implausible, insofar as they show that 247,590 people voted during the final 30 minutes before polling stations closed. This, Petrosian calculated, worked out to 100 people on average at each polling station, which, he claimed, is logistically impossible. On 3 March, Petrosian quoted an unidentified foreign diplomat who participated in the first-round monitoring as estimating that at least 10 percent of the total votes cast were falsified and that a further 20 percent were "reallocated" during the vote count.

Self-Determination Union Chairman and Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hairikian, who has conducted extensive research into voting patterns, announced on 7 March that a poll conducted by his party of 1,455 residents of Yerevan established that only 10 percent of respondents admitted to having voted for Kocharian in the runoff. Hairikian noted that such poll findings normally vary by only 2 percent either way from the official returns.

Addressing a gathering of some 30,000 supporters in Yerevan on 7 March, Demirchian said he cannot accept the falsification of the ballot and will appeal to the Constitutional Court to declare the results invalid and to bring criminal charges against CEC Chairman Artak Sahradian for condoning that falsification. Other opposition leaders vowed at the 7 March rally to continue daily demonstrations until the election is declared void.

Demirchian again pledged that he will abide strictly by the law and the constitution in his efforts to have the vote annulled. But other opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian and former Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan, both from the Hanrapetutiun party, have continued to make incautious statements similar to those they expressed after the 19 February first round. Sargsian told a protest rally on 6 March that "with our unity and consolidation, we shall achieve the resignation of the current authorities within two or three days." On 7 March, Bazeyan warned Prime Minister Andranik Markarian that he has "one last chance" to "save his moral image" by ensuring that those ministers who, according to the opposition, orchestrated Kocharian's illegitimate victory be brought to justice.

If the protest rallies by Demirchian's supporters do continue, the authorities could seek to discredit Demirchian by deliberately provoking clashes between protesters and police, as happened in the wake of the disputed September 1996 presidential ballot. In that case, Bazeyan and Sargsian might risk arrest on the grounds of calling for the overthrow of the Armenian leadership. And their arrest could, in turn, be adduced as the rationale for official measures (revoking its registration?) against the Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Karabakh war, with which both men are closely aligned.

Kocharian's campaign manager, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, warned on 7 March that the Armenian authorities will act decisively to counter any "illegal action" on the part of the opposition. Sarkisian also indicated that the authorities will continue to reject any allegations, whether from inside the country or abroad, that the ballot was fundamentally flawed and did not accurately reflect the level of popular support for Kocharian. He dismissed the OSCE criticisms of irregularities as exaggerated and based on too small a sample of polling stations to be representative. In addition, he pointed out that monitors from the CIS Parliamentary Assembly characterized both the elections as "democratic and legitimate."

At the same time, Sarkisian commented that "people who have grown up and lived in Europe cannot understand our mentality. They have their rules and views on democracy, and we have ours." That line of reasoning echoes the arguments adduced by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that their respective countries are not mature enough to embrace Western-style democracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April and 26 October 1999 and 16 October 2000) and is difficult to reconcile with Kocharian's statement to international diplomats on 30 November 2002 that one of the Armenian leadership's key objectives is to bring Armenia into line with European Union standards in both the political and economic spheres. As the daily "Aravot" wrote on 7 March, "You can't pretend to embrace European values but act like an Asian dictator in real life." (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJAN LOOKS BEYOND UPCOMING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION TO POST-Aliyev ERA. At its second congress in Baku on 5 February, the Confederation of Azerbaijani Trade Unions unanimously proposed incumbent President Heidar Aliyev as a candidate for the presidential elections due this fall. Although the precise date of the ballot has yet to be announced, and despite the ongoing deadlock in discussions of the new draft election legislation, the opposition has construed Aliev's nomination as heralding the unofficial beginning of what portends to be a fiercely contested campaign.

It is in fact not entirely clear whether Aliyev has the legal right to run for a third term. According to Chapter 3, Section 6, Article 101/V of the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, "No person can be elected president of the Republic of Azerbaijan more than twice." Aliyev was first elected to that post in October 1993 (before the constitution was adopted) and re-elected for a second term in October 1998. Aliyev himself has argued (as have the presidents of some Central Asian states and the presidents or governors of some subjects of the Russian Federation) that his first presidential term does not count as it began prior to the adoption of the present constitution.

In July 2002, Azerbaijani media quoted Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer as saying that the constitution would have to be amended to allow Aliyev to serve a third presidential term. But Constitutional Court Chairman Khanlar Gadjiev explained at that time that the constitution contains a number of temporary provisions, including one stipulating that the limitation on the number of presidential terms applies only to terms that commenced after adoption of the constitution in November 1995 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 19 July 2002).

Justice Party Chairman Ilyas Ismailov, however, recently told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that that temporary provision violates the basic tenets of the constitution and is therefore invalid (see "RFE/RL Azerbaijan Report," 4 March 2003). The legality of Aliev's bid for a third presidential term is one of four issues that nine opposition parties recently referred to the Constitutional Court.

In 1998, five prominent opposition party leaders boycotted the presidential election to protest perceived flaws in the new election law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June and 7 July 1998). But despite a similar dispute over the new draft election legislation, this time around the opposition has no intention of remaining on the sidelines. Ousted President Ayaz Mutalibov and former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev have both announced that they plan to return from their respective exiles in Moscow and the United States to contest the ballot. And Lala-Shovket Gadjieva, one of the five opposition party leaders who boycotted the 1998 election, likewise signaled on 1 March that she intends to resign as head of the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan and run as an independent candidate. Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar, who also boycotted in 1998, said on 14 February that under no circumstances will he do so again this year.

It is still not yet clear, however, whether the main opposition parties will be able to reach agreement on fielding a single candidate to challenge Aliev, although Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (reformist wing) leader Ali Kerimli and Azerbaijani National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov (Aliev's closest challenger in 1998) have both pledged their support for that strategy.

The opposition's determination not to boycott is, moreover, not the only major difference between this year's ballot and the previous one. Regardless of the legality of Aliev's bid for a third term, few observers doubt that given his age (he will be 80 in May), this will be his last. Many political figures in Azerbaijan are therefore already looking ahead to the ballot that will follow Aliev's departure from the political scene -- whether that departure takes place in 2008 or earlier. Among the amendments to the Azerbaijani Constitution approved in a controversial referendum last August was one stipulating that the president's duties devolve on to the prime minister should the president become incapacitated or die in office (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2002). It is widely anticipated that either before or immediately following his re-election, Aliyev will name his son Ilham as prime minister, thereby placing him in a privileged position, with access to all the necessary instruments of power to ensure his successful election as the next president.

That prospect, however, is reportedly not regarded with universal enthusiasm within the current Azerbaijani leadership. Some unidentified officials fear that the advent to power of Ilham Aliyev and his team would result in their dismissal, according to zerkalo.az on 4 March. Dubbed "conservatives" by Ilham Aliev's team, those officials have reportedly already made tentative approaches to unidentified opposition figures with a view to coordinating tactics in a bid to thwart Ilham Aliev's election as president. According to zerkalo.az, the proposed scenario is that in the event of domestic political tensions resulting from a standoff between the opposition and the Azerbaijani leadership over the disputed election law, the "conservatives" will do their best to "rock the boat" from within. In return, they are said to be negotiating with the opposition on guarantees of personal immunity and possible participation in a new opposition-led government, should the opposition come to power.

Which opposition figures are engaged in such clandestine negotiations is a matter for speculation. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Mr. Kocharian, your victory sucks." -- Former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian (quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 6 March).

"When hundreds of thousands go out onto the street, it can only mean that the people's dignity has been affronted. Even if we wanted to, we could not hold rallies on such a scale if the people had not been so disappointed and offended." -- Armenian presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian (quoted by "Aravot" on 1 March).

"Kocharian has done nothing for this country." -- A Yerevan taxi driver (quoted by UPI on 6 March).

"The extent of ballot-box stuffing shows that Kocharian is absolutely determined to stay in power... I do not exclude that he will be willing and quick to use force [against opposition protesters]." -- Armenian media specialist Mark Grigorian (quoted by UPI on 6 March).

"The president is not a policeman." -- Incumbent President Robert Kocharian, commenting on reported irregularities during the first round of the Armenian presidential election (quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 5 March).

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