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Armenia: Defeated Presidential Challenger Rejects Calls For Cooperation

The standoff in Armenia between the authorities and supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who continues to claim he was the rightful winner of the February 19 presidential ballot, looks set to continue.

Addressing some 10,000 supporters in Yerevan on February 26, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who according to official results won the February 19 presidential election with almost 53 percent of the vote, appealed to his defeated rival candidates and their supporters to cooperate, and possibly form a coalition government, but Ter-Petrossian responded just hours later by demanding that Sarkisian and outgoing President Robert Kocharian resign. Claiming that he received 65 percent of the vote, rather than the 21.51 percent confirmed as the final tally by the Central Election Commission on February 24, Ter-Petrossian has told supporters that he will leave Freedom Square, where his supporters have assembled daily since February 20, only to move into the presidential palace.

Ter-Petrossian's rejection of the ballot as less than free and fair is not entirely unfounded, nor is the anger and resentment of many of the tens of thousands of Armenians who support him.

The election monitoring mission organized by the OSCE and the Council of Europe registered the lack of a "level playing field" during the election campaign, in particular Sarkisian's use of the administrative resources available to him as prime minister and the equally blatant bias shown by pro-government media against Ter-Petrossian.

The actual vote, too, was marred by isolated instances of violence, intimidation, and procedural violations such as ballot stuffing, while the vote count and tabulation was assessed as "bad" or "very bad" in 16 percent of polling stations where international observers were present. (The comparable figure for the preterm Georgian presidential ballot was 25 percent, and for the 2003 presidential election in Azerbaijan more than 50 percent.)

On February 25, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), whose presidential candidate, Vahan Hovannisian, placed fourth with 6 percent of the vote, issued a statement implying that Ter-Petrossian's supporters too resorted to vote buying and other irregularities. Ter-Petrossian's supporters allege that the turnout figure of 1.7 million, or almost 70 percent of registered voters, was inflated, and that only some 1.1 million voters cast ballots. But it remains an open question whether, as Ter-Petrossian's supporters claim, the violations were of a magnitude to reduce Sarkisian's share of the vote to below the 50 percent plus one vote required to avoid a runoff.

The mass popular support for Ter-Petrossian reflects not simply a rejection of an election outcome perceived to have been manipulated, thereby negating voters' legitimate choice. At another level, it is a protest against the widespread official corruption, embezzlement, and mismanagement that Ter-Petrossisan lambasted repeatedly in his campaign speeches. Speaking at a press conference on February 26, leading HHD member Armen Rustamian stressed that the Armenian leadership should be asking themselves the pertinent question: "What have we done wrong, that so many people have aligned with Levon Ter-Petrossian?" Finally, it is an expression of confidence in a man who spearheaded the drive for Armenia's independence, and who, while he undoubtedly failed during his six years as president to curtail similar corruption among his own entourage, is widely regarded as personally honest. To that extent, it reflects the degree to which politics in Armenia is dominated not by political parties or by issues, but by individual politicians.

Despite the procedural violations registered during the voting and vote count by international monitors, the international community has accepted the election outcome as valid. Several heads of state have congratulated Sarkisian personally, although the U.S. State Department congratulated the Armenian people on holding an "active and competitive ballot." Both the U.S. State Department, and Slovak Foreign Minister Jan Kubis in his capacity as president of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, and visiting Finnish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Ilkka Kanerva have praised the Armenian authorities' "restraint" in the face of the ongoing mass protests and stressed the need for the two opposing sides to resolve their differences within the framework of the constitution.

In light of statements by the international community endorsing the official results of the ballot, the Armenian leadership has every incentive to avoid any escalation that could end in bloodshed. And Ter-Petrossian and his supporters risk forfeiting any international support they may be counting on if they embark in their demands for new elections on any action that could be construed by the authorities as an attempt to seize power. Outgoing President Robert Kocharian ordered senior military, National Security Service and Interior Ministry personnel on February 23 to take measures to avert any such "unconstitutional" moves. Meanwhile, a February 23 offer by defeated HHD candidate Hovannisian to mediate between the two sides has gone unregarded.

Ter-Petrossian is almost certainly waiting for the Constitutional Court to respond to his formal appeal to invalidate the outcome of the February 19 vote and schedule new elections. The court must do so within 10 days of the appeal, which was made on February 25. He may also be hoping that more senior government officials will defect and join his camp, as some 10 Foreign Ministry personnel and two department heads from the Trade and Economic Development Ministry have already done. But the scale of those defections cannot be compared with the massive withdrawal of support, especially by 40 of the 96 deputies from the majority Hanrapetutiun parliament faction, that apparently proved decisive in impelling Ter-Petrossian to step down as president 10 years ago. Ter-Petrossian claimed on February 27 that "thousands" of civil servants and some members of the presidential administration are on his side, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Even if Ter-Petrossian did not plan from the outset to use in order to seize power the tactical and logistical skills in inspiring and mobilizing tens of thousands of people that he acquired 20 years ago as leader of the Karabakh Committee, his ignoring of Hovannisian's offer to mediate and his implicit rejection of Sarkisian's offer of cooperation only serve to substantiate Kocharian's allegations that this is his ultimate intention. As his rhetoric becomes bolder, and popular support for him shows no sign of abating, the options available to both sides for avoiding a violent confrontation are diminishing with each passing day.

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