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Armenia: 1996 Presidential Election Was Rigged, Aide Suggests

Yerevan, 31 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A one-time close associate of Levon Ter-Petrossian has suggested that the former Armenian president falsified the 1996 election to win a second term and then, confirmed in office, promptly fell into a three-month depression.

In an interview with state television last week, former interior minister Vano Siradeghian seemed to confirm what has been long alleged by the political opposition and generally believed by the Armenian public: the 1996 election was rigged. Even though Siradeghian offered no proof for any of his allegations, his interview was seen as dealing a crushing blow to his former, and once politically omnipotent, boss.

Siradeghian's hour-long monologue elaborated on earlier remarks of his which charged Ter-Petrossian had made a fateful mistake by not agreeing to a run-off vote in the election. He also said earlier that Vazgen Manukian, Ter-Petrossian's principle 1996 election opponent, had not won more than half the vote in a first round, either.

In the TV interview, the flamboyant Siradeghian said that after polls closed on September 21, 1996, Armenian government leaders gathered at Ter-Petrossian's campaign headquarters. There, he said, they received what he called "distressing news" from local election precincts that indicated Ter-Petrossian had not won a majority of votes, and that a second-round run-off would therefore be necessary.. According to Siradeghian, he then asked Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, "Is Levon ready for a second round?" Sarkisian said: 'No, he is not ready.' And in fact, the second round did not take place."

Siradeghian said: "One month before the ill-fated 1996 elections, it had already become clear that a failure was likely. I attribute the whole 1996 flop to Ter-Petrossian's fatigue. He had depleted himself."

One manifestation of Ter-Petrossian's condition, according to Siradeghian, was his opting for, in Siradeghian's words, an "Asian type" of leadership after the 1996 election. The "Asian" style, Siradeghian explained, "means governing not through a political system but by palace intrigues, firings and appointments."

Four days after the 1996 election (Sept. 25), in the face of violent opposition protests, Ter-Petrossian deployed army troops in order, the president said, to "maintain constitutional order." But the revelations of his former interior minister, if true, shatter this justification. If Siradeghian is correct, the former Armenian leadership used armed force to remain in power.

Still, several local observers point out, Siradeghian may be engaging in a well-calculated game that implicates in the alleged vote-rigging current Armenian government authorities as well. In his TV interview, Siradeghian stressed that the entire leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was also present at Ter-Petrossian headquarters when the decision to rig the ballot was taken. He mentioned specifically Robert Kocharian, then head of the self-proclaimed Karabakh Republic, now Armenia's president.

Also according to Siradeghian, after the election and the suppression of opposition protests, Ter-Petrossian went into a three-month-long depression. Siradeghian said: "(The president) wanted both Vazgen Sarkisian and myself to resign our posts. The entire state apparatus was demoralized, paralyzed. No government was formed during (the ensuing) three months." He continued: "Throughout all of 1997, Ter-Petrossian was preparing his resignation, (while then Armenian Prime Minister) Kocharian was strengthening his power." Siradeghian said that naming Kocharian to head the Armenian government was another grievous mistake by Ter-Petrossian. According to the former interior minister, Kocharian's appointment doomed to failure Ter-Petrossian's efforts to reach an agreement with Azerbaijan on the dispute over Karabakh.

In Siradeghian's words: "Bringing in Kocharian meant that Armenia's political elite could no longer dictate the terms of a settlement. The government's military orientation was thus reinforced." Siradeghian also indicated during his TV interview that the presidential election in March of this year was no fairer than the previous one. But he offered no proof of the charge.

Siradeghian's revelations about the 1996 election have upset those Ter-Petrossian supporters who believed he had been re-elected fairly. They have also tarnished the once charismatic image of the first president of independent Armenia. And they may signal the final rupture between Siradeghian and Ter-Petrossian, until recently close friends.