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Caucasus Report: March 3, 2003

3 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 9

COLD FEET OR STEEL NERVES? Perhaps the most significant aspect of the ongoing Armenian presidential election is that, as Noyan Tapan's veteran commentator David Petrosian pointed out, it marks the first time that the incumbent president of a CIS state has failed to win re-election in the first round. Robert Kocharian polled 49.5 percent of the vote on 19 February, just a few thousand votes short of the 50 percent of all votes cast plus one required for a first-round win. His closest challenger, People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, garnered 28.2 percent. The two men will thus participate in a runoff on 5 March.

Meanwhile, the two camps are accusing one other of acting illegally and of undermining political stability. The authorities have reacted to protests by Demirchian's supporters and other opposition politicians by rounding up and sentencing to 15 days in prison dozens of Demirchian's campaign activists.

Supporters of both Demirchian and other defeated opposition candidates attributed the Central Election Commission's (CEC) surprise announcement at 6 p.m. on 20 February that a second round would be necessary to an attack of "cold feet" on the part of the Armenian leadership. Earlier on 20 February, the joint Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Council of Europe election-observation mission issued a statement criticizing "serious irregularities," including blatant ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of voters. Moreover, thousands of irate Demirchian supporters braved heavy snowfalls to march to the commission headquarters in Yerevan to protest those efforts to falsify the vote.

Some opposition supporters therefore believe that the Armenian leadership opted for a second round rather than risk either large-scale manipulation of the vote tallies to ensure a Kocharian victory (which could have incurred even harsher criticism from the international monitors) or an attempt by Demirchian's supporters to storm the CEC building. Reuters on 20 February quoted an unidentified Western diplomat in Yerevan as calling the CEC announcement "amazing" and "a bomb." That diplomat explained that "this means that Kocharian was afraid to fake the results and give himself an outright victory in the first round."

But subsequent actions and statements by the Armenian leadership suggest that conceding that Kocharian had failed to win in the first round was a demonstration not of cold feet but of steel nerves. In a televised statement on 22 February, Kocharian accused the opposition of deliberately jeopardizing political stability and warned that the Armenian authorities will react "in the severest and most serious manner" to any further attempts to "violate public order." He also claimed that the opposition was surprised that he managed to poll over 49 percent of the vote without resorting to falsifications. He brushed off reports of such falsifications, saying that the international observers' assessment was the most positive of any Armenian election to date.

But four days later, on 26 February, Kocharian admitted that some violations of voting procedure were registered. At the same time, he said the number of such incidents was greatly exaggerated and that violations were committed not only by his supporters but on behalf of unspecified opposition candidates. Kocharian characterized the arrests of more than 100 Demirchian campaign supporters who had taken part in rallies in Yerevan on Demirchian's behalf on 21 and 23 February as justified, claiming that the people arrested had engaged in hooliganism.

Kocharian also predicted on 26 February that he will win the 5 March runoff against Demirchian. On 25 February, Urban Development Minister David Lokian said in an interview with Armenian Public Television that he is confident that supporters of National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian, who placed third in the vote with some 17 percent, will vote for Kocharian in the second round. On 27 February, Geghamian appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare the 19 February vote invalid due to the level of falsification and to schedule new elections.

Demirchian, for his part, continues to accuse Kocharian of destabilizing the political situation and of acting illegally in seeking to predetermine the outcome of the vote. On 21, 23, and 26 February, Demirchian's supporters, together with several other defeated candidates and representatives of other opposition parties, congregated in tens of thousands in Yerevan to demand that Kocharian acknowledge and condemn the falsification of the 19 February vote and punish those people they believe responsible, including at least two government ministers.

But some speakers at those rallies in support of Demirchian came out with statements that could be construed as substantiating Kocharian's allegations that the opposition is deliberately seeking to destabilize the political situation. Former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian (who withdrew his candidacy on 8 February in support of Demirchian) and Albert Bazeyan, a second leading member of Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun party, both declared that "we shall resort to all possible means" to ensure that Demirchian is ultimately recognized as the legitimately elected president. Yet, despite the massive deployment of police and Interior Ministry troops on 26 February to prevent Demirchian supporters from entering the street that leads to the parliament and presidential palace, there were no mass clashes like those that erupted during similar protests in the wake of the disputed presidential poll of September 1996.

One week before the runoff, in the last days of February, it appeared that Demirchian's position had been seriously weakened by the arrests of his campaign activists who will thus no longer be able to monitor the second-round vote. Some observers even suggested that Demirchian might boycott the second round in protest against unfair conditions, despite, it was said, the urging of the international monitors who assured him they will do all in their power to ensure that the vote is fair. But late on 28 February, in response to an appeal by Catholicos Garegin II, the authorities released 48 detainees. Demirchian told supporters at a rally in Yerevan the following day that he is not merely doomed to participate in the runoff but also "doomed to win."

A poll conducted in Yerevan by the nongovernmental Armenian Center for Electoral Systems and summarized by the daily "Aravot" on 25 February shows that 37 percent of respondents said they voted for Demirchian on 19 February compared with 26 percent who voted for Kocharian. Asked for whom they will vote on 5 March, about 56 percent named Demirchian, and only 27 percent Kocharian.

If those figures reflect voter preferences nationwide, then Demirchian would have more than an even chance of victory on 5 March provided the ballot were truly free and fair. That, in turn, depends on whether Kocharian and his advisers are willing to risk the opprobrium that repeated ballot-box stuffing and falsification would incur. "Aravot" and "Orran" on 28 February both attributed Kocharian's meetings on 27-28 February with local campaign staffers in Yerevan to incipient "panic" among his staff. Already on 22 February, the opposition paper "Haykakan zhamanak" claimed that scores of government officials had effectively defected to the opposition camp by making clear that they will not resort to vote rigging in anyone's favor during the runoff. (Liz Fuller)

OSCE MONITORS VERIFY FIRST-ROUND VOTE RESULTS. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met on 28 February with Armenia's Central Election Commission to check the veracity of the results of the voting in the 19 February presidential election after detecting some discrepancies in the official returns.

"We have found a few discrepancies which we are trying to check out and see what the explanations may be," Peter Eicher, the American head of the monitoring mission, told RFE/RL on 28 February. He said representatives of the mission raised "very specific questions" during their meetings with CEC officials.

"We have also found a couple of discrepancies from protocols we had from polling stations on election night which were different in the final tally," Eicher said, referring to the detailed precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the vote results publicized by the CEC at the OSCE's urging. "But we don't know if there is a logical explanation to this. Perhaps there was a recount in those districts that we are not aware of. So there are factual questions like that that we really need to get clear answers to before we start making comments about the nature of discrepancies." Eicher added that it is too early to say how significant the discrepancies are. "We are still checking. This is a complicated process," he explained.

The OSCE observers, who inspected hundreds of polling stations on election day, are primarily comparing copies of the vote protocols they were given there after the counting of ballots with the official results subsequently posted by the CEC in order to make sure that there was no fraud. According to Eicher, they have also attended vote recounts in four electoral districts comprising several precincts each and found "some evidence of ballot-box stuffing" in one of them.

"In one of the envelopes with ballots that was opened, there was a stack of ballots which have never been folded but have been counted," he said. "We were concerned that in that particular case the result was not changed as a result of this."

Eicher said the observers are also looking into possible reasons for the "extremely high" voter turnout of more than 90 percent reported by the CEC from some polling stations. "This is so much above the national average that it, of course, raises questions," he said.

According to the CEC, 62 percent of the 2.4 million eligible voters cast their ballots in the first round. Some opposition leaders claim that the figure is inflated and includes thousands of pre-marked ballots allegedly stuffed into the ballot boxes by supporters of incumbent Robert Kocharian. All major opposition candidates have refused to recognize the first-round outcome, alleging widespread fraud. Kocharian's campaign staff have rejected those allegations.

Still, numerous reports of ballot-box stuffing appear to have been the primary reason why the OSCE-led mission, which also comprised officials from the Council of Europe, concluded last week that the Armenian vote "fell short of international standards in several key respects." Eicher questioned official results from dozens of polling stations, according to which Kocharian won more than 95 percent of the vote. In some rural precincts, Kocharian was shown taking 100 percent of the votes. "We have been to a lot of elections, and you don't normally see a polling station where 1,733 [people] vote exactly the same way," Eicher said. "There is quite a lot of polling stations which are showing very, very high results for the incumbent president."

Eicher further pointed to the fact that Kocharian polled more than 80 percent of the vote in three central Yerevan precincts, which is much more than he was shown winning in any other area in the city center. But he would not comment on possible reasons for the "huge difference."

Asked to comment on government allegations that opposition supporters were also involved in vote irregularities, the OSCE official replied, "In terms of concrete evidence, I'm not sure." (Emil Danielyan)

GEORGIA GIVES ADVANCE WARNING OF FURTHER ANTITERRORISM DRIVE IN PANKISI. In August 2002, the Georgian leadership announced that it planned to launch a large-scale operation to locate and apprehend Chechen fighters and criminal elements believed to have taken refuge in the Pankisi Gorge. Observers immediately pointed out that such announcements call into question the seriousness of any such anticrime operation by giving prior warning to undesirable elements, who can thus take steps to avoid arrest. Yet, regardless of such criticisms, the Georgian authorities have just publicly announced that the "second stage" of the operation to rid Pankisi of those undesirables who evaded arrest last fall will get under way in early March.

There is, to be sure, one crucial difference between the situation now and that of last August. At that time, it would have been easy for any people wishing to leave Pankisi to move north into the mountains, closer to the Russian border, or to cross that border into the Russian Federation. Now, however, the mountain passes leading to Russia are blocked by snow. In addition, it is not clear precisely whom the second stage of the cleanup operation is directed against: In early February, Georgian officials insisted that all international terrorists had left Pankisi, although up to 50 criminal kingpins may remain there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2003). More recently, however, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze conceded that there "might" still be some Chechen fighters in Pankisi posing as bona fide refugees. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze also recently admitted that that there are some terrorists and criminals still in Pankisi. And on 17 February, the Georgian newspaper "Tribuna" quoted State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania as saying that his men recently discovered Igla and Shmel missiles in Pankisi.

Both Djaparidze and Shevardnadze subsequently offered an alternative explanation for the new Pankisi operation. Caucasus Press quoted Djaparidze as admitting during a news conference in Tbilisi on 21 February that the exercise is largely preemptive -- to ensure that Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev does not return to Pankisi once the snow melts and the cross-border passes are clear. Georgian State Border Department head Lieutenant General Valeri Chkheidze said on 8 February he had received information that Gelaev would try to return from Russia to Georgia at some point in the spring. In his regular weekly radio interview, Shevardnadze also said on 24 February that the aim of the new operation is to prevent a new Chechen incursion. But in that case, the question arises: How can an operation conducted in March prevent infiltration by Chechen bands two months later once the snows have melted and the mountain passes are clear? (Liz Fuller)

ELECTION-LAW DEADLOCK CONTINUES IN AZERBAIJAN. Meeting in Baku on 21 February, representatives of the nine opposition parties aligned in the Opposition Coordinating Center (MKM) decided to reject an invitation to participate in a "scientific-practical conference" scheduled for 26-27 February and devoted to the disputed new draft election law. That conference duly took place without any input from the opposition.

Over the past three months, the opposition has refused to participate in two separate, earlier discussions of that bill that were organized by the OSCE mission in Baku. The Azerbaijani authorities have, predictably, accused the opposition of sabotaging any proposed dialogue by setting new conditions for its participation. But opposition representatives continue to insist on the creation of a "conciliation commission," on which the authorities and the opposition would be equally represented, to discuss both perceived flaws in the draft election law and the alternative version prepared by the opposition and to reach agreement on a compromise version (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 and 27 January 2003).

The Azerbaijani authorities have rejected that proposal, arguing that the successive roundtables organized by the OSCE constitute a more appropriate forum for a discussion of the merits and flaws of the draft election code. They further point out that under the Azerbaijani Constitution, only the parliament is empowered to approve or reject various alternative draft laws. In an interview published by on 19 February, Ali Akhmedov, who is executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, reasoned that the opposition's demands -- first, that a conciliation commission that would craft an "acceptable" version of the draft law be created, and second, that parliament then endorse those changes to the law that the opposition insists on -- are anti-constitutional. Akhmedov added that the Azerbaijani authorities are unaware of the opposition's precise objections and criticisms of the draft law. "Azadlig," however, reported on 14 February that the MKM had submitted its objections and alternative proposals to the presidential apparatus one week earlier. And on 21 February, the MKM decided to publish its proposed amendments to the draft law in book form.

Following the opposition's repeated rebuffs to the OSCE, talks were scheduled in Strasbourg in mid-February between the representatives from the OSCE, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Azerbaijani leadership. It is not clear whether the latter undertook to modify the draft law in any way. But on 20 February, quoted opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov as saying that the international organizations urged the Azerbaijani authorities to reach a consensus with the opposition over the composition of the election commissions, which, in the view of his party, is the single most important problem that needs to be addressed.

Akhmedov told that the authorities are now proposing that they, the opposition, and "neutral forces" should be equally represented on those commissions. The Azerbaijani authorities had previously advocated a three-way split among the authorities, the opposition, and other political parties represented in parliament. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I believe that Armenia must become the most democratic state in the Caucasus, where supremacy of the law is not just a campaign slogan." -- Opposition presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian in an interview published in "Haykakan zhamanak" on 28 February.

"Calm down, gentlemen. The HHSh [Armenian Pan-National Movement] is not returning to power. The HHSh will be in opposition regardless of who becomes Armenian president." -- David Shahnazarian, a close associate of, and national-security minister to, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, commenting on allegations of covert contacts between the HHSh and Demirchian's HZhK (quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 25 February).

"NATO and the United States are not Santa Clauses, and Georgia must not expect that they will enhance Georgia's defensive ability. Georgia must do it itself, and this will take about 10 years." -- U.S.-NATO Committee Chairman Bruce Jackson, speaking in Tbilisi on 26 February (quoted by Caucasus Press).