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Armenia: Fugitive Ex-Minister Re-elected Party Leader

Yerevan, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's former ruling party has raised more questions about its political future by re-electing as its chairman Vano Siradeghian, a former interior minister who is a fugitive from justice.

The ruling board of Armenia's Pan-National Movement (HHSh) voted narrowly late Monday to reaffirm Siradeghian's leadership of the center-right party. The action was taken less than three months before scheduled Armenian parliamentary elections.

Siradeghian -- a close ally of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian -- fled Armenia in late January shortly before the government-controlled parliament voted to allow his prosecution on murder charges. State prosecutors have accused Siradeghian of ordering the murders of two police officers five years ago, when he was interior minister. He has denied the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

But the former minister's re-election (March 8) will do little to save him from the trial he has so far successfully avoided. With Siradeghian unlikely to return home before the May 30 general election, it is unclear how his party plans to conduct its election campaign. The charges against Siradeghian have dealt a severe blow to the HHSh, whose popularity has declined dramatically in the past few years.

The HHSh came to power in 1990 in the country's first democratic elections after the end of 70 years of Communist rule in Armenia. It was ousted from power in February 1998 with the resignation of then-Armenian president Ter-Petrossian, the party's unofficial leader.

The HHSh's eight-year rule was marked by Armenian military victories in Nagorno-Karabakh -- a largely ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan -- and a drastic decline in living standards in Armenia itself. The economic decline was the result both of a bitter dispute with Baku over Karabakh and the collapse of the previous command economy.

Ter-Petrossian's party currently is the second-largest group in parliament but is likely to have to struggle even to remain represented in the National Assembly after the May elections. The party board's decision to re-elect Siradeghian came after three days of heated debates and two rounds of voting. Of the 41-strong HHSh board, 22 members voted for Siradeghian, while 14 others preferred his main challenger, former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian.

Ararktsian's bid was backed mainly by party veterans, who have been unhappy with Siradeghian's style of leadership. After the vote -- in a clear display of intra-party divisiveness -- Ararktsian and his supporters promptly left the HHSh headquarters, refusing to comment on its result. By contrast, Siradeghian's jubilant loyalists gathered for a celebration.

To a large extent, the HHSh strategy in the election campaign now depends on whom Siradeghian appoints as his deputies. Analysts say that in the absence of the HHSh leader himself, the two deputy chairmen could have a decisive say in running party affairs.

At an HHSh congress last week, the party launched strong attacks on Armenia's current president, Robert Kocharian, and on his policies. It pledged -- in the party's words -- to "foil the regime's plans to form a puppet parliament" and threatened a boycott of the elections in case of "violence and overt illegalities."

Legislative and presidential elections held in 1995 and 1996 -- during HHSh rule -- were severely criticized by international monitors. Siradeghian recently admitted that the 1996 ballot was rigged in Ter-Petrossian's favor.

The HHSh congress was briefly attended by Ter-Petrossian, who said Kocharian's hard line on resolving the Karabakh conflict has yielded no positive results. A party resolution said the government is seeking -- in its words -- to "prolong the Karabakh conflict's existing status quo." The war with Azerbaijan was stopped by a Russian-mediated cease-fire agreement in May 1994.

(Emil Danielyan regularly contributes to RFE/RL from Yerevan.)