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Armenia: FAQ About February's Presidential Election

Billboard in the capital touts candidate and current prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian (AFP) RFE/RL regional analyst Liz Fuller discusses some of the key questions and main candidates associated with Armenia's February 19 presidential election.

There is virtually no expectation that the February 19 election in Armenia will be free or fair. Is there at least a degree of choice?

The problem is that Armenia has had just one presidential election that was perceived as free and fair, and that was in October 1991 when Levon Ter-Petrossian was first elected president. In September 1996, when he came up for reelection, the results of the first round were rigged to preclude a runoff between him and his former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian. Then, after Ter-Petrossian's ouster in 1998 and 2003 -- both times when the candidate of the party of power was Robert Kocharian -- on both occasions, the election went to the second round, and both times the opposition called foul and insisted that the ballot was rigged in Kocharian's favor. Therefore, people are not enthusiastic.

Since Kocharian came to power ten years ago, a small group of people, a small elite, has accumulated enormous economic power. And it goes without saying that this small elite, clustered around Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, are not going to give up power, the huge fortunes and the economic influence that they have. And all the indications that we have seen in the past few months is that the authorities are preparing to engineer an outcome that would bring Serzh Sarkisian to power as president. The use of economic resources, the way that budget employees are being told 'if you don't vote for Serzh Sarkisian, then you won't get your salaries,' the way that the state-controlled media has consistently pushed Serzh Sarkisian's candidacy, while denigrating the rival candidates, in particular former President Ter-Petrossian."

How have Armenia's elections compared with others in the region in recent history?

Armenia has had just one election that was seen as free and fair, and that was in 1991. Since then, all the elections in Armenia -- whether parliamentary or presidential -- have been marred by some degree of rigging, but not to the extent that the OSCE has come out and said "these elections were not free and fair." The formulation used has always been something like 'they were not totally consistent with the requirements for'... They were fudged.

The degree of falsification in Armenia over the past 10 years has been less than in Azerbaijan, where the authorities have openly and blatantly moved to rig the elections. Even in the presence of OSCE observers, when the votes were being counted, they would manipulate and overstate the number of votes cast for either the incumbent president or the ruling party.

[In] Georgia -- the 2004 elections that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power were viewed as free and fair. But again, there were questions over last month's ballot, when Saakashvili, according to official returns, just managed by the skin of his teeth to win the reelection in the first round. So the entire region has a pretty checkered history. And the number of ballots that have been considered as free and fair has been minimal.

Claiming he is the only true challenger, Ter-Petrossian has expressed his anger with opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian's decision not to support him, and has said that Baghdasarian is essentially backing Sarkisian. Does Baghdasarian have a chance to make it to the second round in his own right?

Yes, he does have a chance. He's the youngest candidate -- he's 39 -- he's charismatic, he's populist. He's made some very populist economic promises in terms of residing salaries and cutting taxes. The question is whether the authorities decide to go for broke and engineer and outcome in the first round that would preclude a second round; or whether they will finesse it and give Serzh Sarkisian just under 50 percent of the vote in the first round, in order to demonstrate that they are really being fair. In which case it would be very, very difficult to predict who the second candidate would be, whether it would be Baghdasarian or Ter-Petrossian, who apparently does have huge support.

How much has the failure of the opposition to unite behind a single candidate harmed its chances against Sarkisian?

It's very difficult to say, without having some idea of exactly how many people will turn out and vote, or how many people is so disenchanted that they won't vote. In a fair election, the failure to unite behind a single candidate could work in the opposition's favor, if all the opposition candidates together managed to deprive Sarkisian of the 50 percent in the first round.

Do you expect the election to go to a second round?

I honestly would not like to predict at this stage. There was an opinion poll conducted, I think, last week or the week before by a British company that gave Sarkisian marginally over 50 percent of the vote. And the margin of error is such that it's very difficult to say. It could go either way. Given that [in] the last two elections there has been a runoff, it would seem logical that there should be one this time round as well. Especially as this time you have two strong challengers -- you have Baghdasarian and Ter-Petrossian, rather than simply one.

A cynic would say that whether or not there is a second round would depend wholly on whether or not a second round would make an ultimate victory for Serzh Sarkisian appear more natural or convincing.

How is it that Ter-Petrossian, the man who oversaw Armenia's victory in Nagorno-Karabakh as president, is now perceived by his opponents as being "defeatist" on the issue of formally resolving the conflict?

This perception has arisen from the way in which first, not so much Ter-Petrossian's rivals as commentators and even the international community have interpreted the comments that Ter-Petrossian made, first at a press conference in September 1997, and then in his long article called "War Or Peace," which was published in November. In July 1997, the OSCE Minsk group came up with a draft peace proposal that Armenia accepted but Nagorno-Karabakh rejected. They came up with a second draft proposal in September -- again, Nagorno-Karabakh rejected it. It was because of these two rejections by the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians -- partly because of that -- that Ter-Petrossian began to argue 'look, time is not on our side; the only way to resolve this conflict is through a compromise; and the longer we wait to resolve it, the weaker Armenia will be economically, the stronger Azerbaijan will be economically. And, in five or 10 years' time, we could be in a position where the offer that's made to us is far less favorable than what's on the table now.' He didn't argue specifically for giving up any claims for Karabakh independence.

The circumstances of Ter-Petrossian's resignation in February 1998 were always ambiguous. He never said, in his resignation speech, "I am resigning because people don't like my Karabakh policy." It was deliberately fudged, and everyone assumed that it was because Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian were opposed to the Karabakh policy that they decided to oust him. Ter-Petrossian's closest adviser has hinted that there were other reasons entirely, but he has never gone public with them. This is something we may never know, or we may only know it 10 or 20 years' time.

Following a visit to Moscow last week, where he reportedly met with president in waiting Dmitry Medvedev, Ter-Petrossian claimed to have secured Russia's backing for his presidential bid. This followed a visit by Russian officials to Armenia, which was taken by many as evidence of the Kremlin's support for Sarkisian? How big a role does Russia's backing play in this election?

It's not so much a question of Russia's backing, as that Russia has huge interests in Armenia. The Russian military base in Armenia is the only one that Russia has left in the South Caucasus, now that it's pulled out of Georgia. And secondly. Russia has huge economic interests in Armenia. The Russians have bought up most of Armenia's industrial enterprises that could be turned round and really made a profit. There's a big Russian economic interest there.

Russia is interested in stability, and the last thing that Russia wants to see in Armenia is another Orange Revolution that would sweep Serzh Sarkisian away, and bring back Ter-Petrossian, possibly with a new team of people. Russia has a vested interest in seeing a smooth transition of power. We don't know for an absolute certainty that Ter-Petrossian actually did meet with Dmitry Medvedev, and we certainly don't know what sort of assurances -- if any -- Ter-Petrossian managed to get from the Russian leadership. I would suspect that his trop to Moscow was a P.R. stunt, and it may not have turned out the way he hoped it would.

Ter-Petrossian has vowed to take to the streets on Wednesday if there is an attempt to falsify the vote. Sarkisian, meanwhile, has said that peaceful demonstrations will be tolerated but that any violence will be countered by law-enforcement "with all its power." How real is the threat of violence?

It is not in the interest of either side -- either of Ter-Petrossian, or of the Armenian authorities -- for any potential standoff to degenerate into violence or bloodshed.

Ter-Petrossian is already a legend, by virtue of the role that played in the Karabakh movement, and the fact that he was the first president of an independent Armenia. It's not in his interests to risk compromising that reputation by triggering violence. For that reason, I would suspect that Ter-Petrossian himself will be circumspect that if you have tens of thousands of people out there on the streets, rallying in your support, it's terribly, terribly easy for one of Ter-Petrossian's supporters to start throwing stones at police, and then for the police to react violently, and Ter-Petrossian would be blamed. I would very much hope that there is no violence.

It's certainly not in the interests of Serzh Sarkisian for there to be violence. The Armenian authorities, one would hope, would have learned a lesson from the international community's reaction to the violence, suppression by police in Tbilisi last November of what were more or less peaceful protests. Both sides will need to keep a very cool head, and one would hope that there won't be any violence or bloodshed.

What next for Kocharian?

This is one of the big unanswered questions. There has been lots of speculation that Armenia would duplicate the Russian scenario, and that Serzh Sarkisian would appoint Robert Kocharian his prime minister after the election. But Serzh Sarkisian has not yet said anything, either that would even hint at that, let alone confirm that possibility. So this is simply one of the things they are going to have to wait and see how things turn out.

(Interview conducted by Michael Scollon)

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