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Armenia: Repercussions Continue One Year After President's Re-election

Prague, 24 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Last year, the re-election of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossyan prompted protests by opposition groups and massive riots. Today, the aftermath of this contest continues to have repercussions for the country's political system.

Officially, Ter-Petrossyan was reelected on September 22, 1996 with more than 50 percent of the vote. But opposition candidate Vazgen Manukyan accused the government of falsification on a massive scale, claiming he had received an overall majority.

Three days after the vote, Manukyan's supporters attacked the parliament building but were driven back by armed police. Ter-Petrossyan deployed tanks on the streets of Yerevan, and several of Manukyan's close associates were arrested. International observers questioned the official results but stopped short of ruling the elections invalid.

One year later, the impact of those events can still be felt. The country's political forces continue to realign themselves, and that process is certain gather momentum as the 1999 parliamentary elections draw nearer. The outcome of that vote will, in turn, determine the relative chances of the various candidates for the presidency in 2001. The Armenian Constitution bars Ter-Petrossyan from seeking a third presidential term.

Many Armenians believed Manukyan's claim that the Armenian authorities falsified the presidential election results, just as they had been convinced that the official results of both the 1995 parliamentary elections and the referendum on the country's new constitution did not reflect how votes had been cast. International monitors had characterized those elections as "free but not fair."

The perception that the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) -- the senior partner within the ruling Hanrapetutyun bloc -- is intent on clinging to power at all costs has increasingly alienated the population from the leadership.

In a televised address one week after the 1996 disputed presidential poll, Ter-Petrossyan acknowledged that the results reflected widespread popular discontent, particularly with economic policies that had enriched a small elite of HHSh members while forcing hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers to emigrate in search of employment. Ter-Petrossyan fired Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan, who for three years had implemented privatization and radical market reforms, regardless of their social consequences. When Bagratyan's successor, Armen Sargsian, resigned in March because of a serious illness, Ter-Petrossyan named the hugely popular president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Robert Kocharyan, to replace him.

At the same time, Ter-Petrossyan initiated a dialogue with most opposition parties, excluding Manukyan's National Democratic Union (AZhM) but including the Dashnak party which he had accused of terrorist activities and temporarily banned in late 1994.

The willingness of most parties in the National Accord bloc -- comprising five parties including the Dashnaks who jointly supported Manukyan's bid for the presidency -- to acknowledge Ter-Petrossyan as the legitimate president exacerbated tensions within the bloc, particularly between Manukyan and veteran dissident Paruir Hairikyan.

Manukyan's personal popularity has plummeted over the past year, and attendance at the Friday evening rallies convened by the bloc in the spring was modest.

In late May, Hairikyan, who has repeatedly criticized the storming of the parliament building as a major tactical error on Manukyan's part, announced that he no longer recognized Manukyan as leader of the National Accord bloc. Manukyan himself said at a press conference on September 22, the first anniversary of the elections, that the National Accord bloc "is dead."

Paradoxically, the 1996 elections prompted a similar split within the HHSh, which is widely perceived as corrupt and lacking any consistent ideology. In July, the movement's governing board elected as its chairman Yerevan Mayor Vano Siradeghyan, who as interior minister had been partly responsible for quelling the post-election disturbances.

Siradeghyan's election as HHSh leader precipitated the resignation from the movement of Eduard Yegoryan, the respected chairman of the parliamentary Committee for State and Legal Affairs. Yegoryan has since created his own parliament faction, Hairenik, composed mostly of like-minded defectors from the HHSh. Former Premier Hrant Bagratyan has likewise left the HHSh to create his own political party, Azatutyun (Liberty).

While such realignments testify to the HHSh's loss of authority, the emergence of new political parties and factions is unlikely to have a significant impact on domestic politics. Hanrapetutyun still has a comfortable majority within the parliament. Neither Yegoryan nor Bagratyan has yet unveiled a political program capable of mobilizing strong popular support.

Ter-Petrossyan thus is likely to continue dominating the political process at least until early 1999, when new tactical alliances between the various opposition parties are likely to be formed in the runup to the parliamentary poll.