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Armenia: Presidential Campaign Gets Under Way

The nine candidates in the February 19 presidential ballot made public their respective manifestos and held their first meetings with voters on January 21, the first day of the election campaign. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian was the first to hit the campaign trail, with other major opposition candidates contenting themselves with news conferences and other indoor meetings. For his part, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the frontrunner, visited several of his campaign offices in Yerevan on January 21, before heading the following day to the southern district of Vayots Dzor, where he assured voters that if elected, he will double household incomes within five years.

Ter-Petrossian spent January 21 touring towns and villages in central Armenia in a motorcade of about 40 cars that carried leaders of various opposition groups who support his presidential bid. His meetings attracted considerable interest from local residents who turned out to hear their former president speak publicly for the first time in over a decade. Addressing a crowd of several hundred at his first meeting in the town of Artik, the starting point of the campaign swing, Ter-Petrossian recalled the severe hardships people suffered during the first years of Armenia's independence, which coincided with the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and broader turmoil in the region. "I know that during my rule I did not live up to all of your expectations and hopes," he said. "There were disappointments, there was discontent, there were very harsh criticisms. I accept all of that.... And if you think that I am to blame for that, I apologize for my guilt," Ter-Petrossian added.

The ex-president issued a similar public apology at a big rally in Yerevan last November. He made it clear at the same time that he believes that the deprivations of the early 1990s were the inevitable cost of the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan. "I have not come here to ask or beg for votes. That's Serzh's business because he has no votes in Armenia," Ter-Petrossian claimed on January 21, prompting chants of "Levon! Levon!" from the crowd.

Ter-Petrossian again sounded supremely confident of his victory as he spoke at a similar rally held in another small town, Aparan. "It's you, not me, who will win on February 19," he claimed in the town square opposite Sarkisian's local campaign headquarters. "I congratulate you on your victory in advance."

Ter-Petrossian's campaign office in Aparan is run by Razmik Petrosian, a former town mayor and a veteran of the Karabakh war. "Ter-Petrossian remains my commander-in-chief," he told RFE/RL. Other local residents too evoked Ter-Petrossian's wartime leadership of the country. "We have had only one victor in our history and that person is Levon Ter-Petrossian," said one man. "I will vote for Levon because he is an intelligent man," said another.

On January 22, thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters braved freezing weather to stage a rally in Yerevan's Freedom Square followed by a march through the city streets. Addressing the rally, Ter-Petrossian again branded Armenia's leadership "a thieving and anti-popular regime" and said he and his political allies are ready to suffer "any deprivation and sacrifice" for the sake of regime change. "We have reached a turning point where words end and deeds take hold," he said, describing the February 19 election as a "real opportunity to build a normal state."

Another major opposition contender, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, kicked off his campaign under the slogan "A civic movement for new Armenia," with an official presentation of his 32-page election manifesto in Yerevan. "My victory will eliminate corruption and embezzlement rooted in the country," he told journalists and activists of his Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party on January 21. "My victory will mean equality before law, a drastic rise in the living standards of the people of Armenia."

Baghdasarian dismissed claims by government loyalists that the Armenian opposition cannot prevent the handover of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian because it has failed to close ranks and back a single presidential candidate. "There are and there will be alliances," he said without elaborating. "As for the authorities, they are not united either," he added, pointing to the participation in the ballot of a candidate from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), a junior partner in the governing coalition. HHD candidate Vahan Hovannisian held a similar campaign event in Yerevan later on January 21 at which he listed as his primary objectives dismantling the existing system of economic monopolies, promoting intensive economic development, increasing exports, enhancing the role of the armed forces, and securing the participation of representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in the ongoing talks aimed at resolving the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported on January 22.

Also meeting journalists on January 21 was another opposition candidate, National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian. Rather than outline his campaign program, Geghamian again focused on attacking Ter-Petrossian and denouncing what he called a "barbaric" smear campaign waged against him by opposition newspapers. Some opposition media outlets have suggested that Geghamian was bribed by the authorities to enter the fray with the sole aim of discrediting Ter-Petrossian.

Geghamian's opposition credentials were also questioned over the weekend by the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of Raffi Hovannisian (no relation to Vahan), a major opposition group that has so far declined to endorse any of the presidential hopefuls. "Mr. Geghamian's recent political behavior raises questions about his being in opposition and reinforces the government's positions," Hovsep Khurshudian, a Zharangutiun spokesman, told RFE/RL.

(Astghik Bedevian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Ruben Meloyan, and Anna Saghabalian)

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