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Armenia: Opposition Parties Join Forces To Defeat Kocharian

Armenia's leading opposition groups are joining forces to defeat President Robert Kocharian in next February's presidential election. They announced last week their intention to nominate a joint candidate for the poll, in a move that could thwart Kocharian's plans to win a second term in office. The multiparty agreement heralded the start of what promises to be a tense election campaign. But as RFE/RL reports, there are widespread doubts about the opposition's ability to form a united front against the incumbent and his numerous allies.

Yerevan, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Sixteen parties representing virtually the entire Armenian opposition spectrum announced last week the creation of a loose coalition they hope will develop into an electoral alliance in the coming months. The announcement followed several days of intensive negotiations on ways of achieving their common goal -- ousting President Robert Kocharian.

Accusing Kocharian of seeking to "retain and reproduce his power at any cost," the opposition groups pledged to hammer out a deal on what many believe is the only realistic possibility of removing Kocharian from power: to put forward a single candidate for the February election.

A joint opposition declaration issued after the talks reads, "This grouping is meant to transform into an electoral alliance and participate in the presidential elections with a joint candidate and platform."

So far, however, there have been few signs that opposition leaders are ready to restrain their often conflicting ambitions and agree on who should challenge Kocharian. At least three leaders of the would-be opposition alliance have set their sights on the presidency.

Artashes Geghamian is the outspoken leader of the center-left National Accord Party. Owing to his populist appeal, Geghamian made a strong showing in the 1999 parliamentary elections and is now seeking to represent the entire opposition in the February election. Geghamian indicated last summer that he will run for president even if he fails to rally other major opposition parties around his candidacy.

But his far-reaching plans reportedly do not sit well with another, no less popular, opposition figure -- Stepan Demirchian of the People's Party, one of the biggest in Armenia.

Demirchian and Geghamian reportedly distrust each other. Each man appears reluctant to withdraw his candidacy in support of the other. And neither fully trusts another opposition heavyweight and potential candidate, Vazgen Manukian of the National Democratic Union party.

Manukian was nominated as the joint opposition candidate for the disputed presidential election of September 1996, and nearly succeeded in winning it. The vote, denounced as fraudulent by international monitors, is widely believed to have been rigged in favor of then-incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrosian.

The divided Armenian opposition has never been close to coming to power since then, fostering the belief that only its consolidation can mobilize the largely apathetic electorate and deny Kocharian the chance to cling to power until 2008.

Opposition leaders play down the difficulties hampering their unification, saying they will at least try to reach a compromise deal ahead of the February vote, to be followed by parliamentary elections in May 2003. One of them, Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation to the president) tells RFE/RL: "We will seek to have a joint candidate. We do realize that this is a difficult task. But it is obvious to us that if there are numerous opposition candidates [contesting the election], the likelihood of Robert Kocharian's re-election will drastically increase."

Demirchian, for his part, said: "We must act in a very responsible manner. I think that all parties that joined this coalition are prepared to do so. Of course, time will tell [whether this is really the case]. But the readiness is there."

President Kocharian, meanwhile, has said through a spokesman that he is untroubled by the latest opposition moves. He has already effectively started his re-election campaign, visiting various parts of the country to inspect businesses and scold underperforming local governments in front of television cameras. His frequent public appearances, extensively covered by the pro-presidential media, are seen as public-relations stunts designed to put a brave face on Armenia's persisting economic troubles. The politically charged closure last April of Armenia's main independent television station, A1+, has made Kocharian's task easier.

The Armenian leader is relying heavily on the so-called "power class," made up of senior civil servants, government-connected businesspeople, and several loyal parties. They all have a vested interest in Kocharian's continued rule.

But this may be the only thing that unites the governing factions, which increasingly show signs of internal discord as each of them tries to maximize its influence on Kocharian and win more government posts. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party, which controls several government ministries and many local governments, has so far been the most successful in that regard.

Some local observers say Kocharian does not want to be excessively dependent on the Republicans and is keen to restrict their influence by shoring up other loyal factions. They also say the simmering tensions inside the Kocharian camp could flare up into open confrontation in local elections scheduled for 20 October. This would be a welcome development for the consolidating opposition.

One of the Republican leaders, Galust Sahakian, said this weekend that the creation of the opposition forces has served as a wake-up call to Kocharian's allies. "The good thing about this alliance of 16 parties is that it makes the pro-government forces more vigilant. In a sense, it also makes our job easier because we will now be facing only one opposition force."