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No End In Sight To Armenia’s Postelection Standoff

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (left) in a meeting with his top challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, in Yerevan on February 21.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (left) in a meeting with his top challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, in Yerevan on February 21.
One month after the Armenian presidential ballot in which incumbent Serzh Sarkisian was reelected for a second term, his closest rival, Raffi Hovannisian, might have backed himself into a corner from which there is no face-saving exit.

A former Armenian foreign minister, U.S.-born Hovannisian, 53, has failed to mobilize mass public support for his claims that the outcome of the ballot was rigged in Sarkisian’s favor and he himself is the rightful winner. In addition, his categorical rejection of Sarkisian’s proposals to increase the opposition’s role in decision-making and his maximalist rhetoric with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh are likely to have irritated and alarmed the international community, which delivered a generally positive assessment of the vote.

True, the OSCE election monitors too have questioned the accuracy of official figures giving Sarkisian 58.6 percent of the vote compared with 36.7 percent for Hovannisian. They highlighted in particular the “implausibly high” (over 80 percent) voter turnout in 144 precincts where Sarkisian polled 70-80 percent of the vote. By contrast, in 249 precincts where turnout was under 50 percent, Hovannisian received more than 50 percent of the vote in 155 and Sarkisian in only 40.

But the international community -- including Russia -- has accepted the official results and extended formal congratulations to Sarkisian. Moreover, Armenia’s Constitutional Court has rejected appeals by Hovannisian and another of the eight candidates, Andreas Ghukasian, to annul the election results.

Constitutional Court Chairman Gagik Harutiunian ruled last week that neither candidate produced sufficient evidence to substantiate his allegations of fraud.

Central Election Commission Chairman Tigran Mukuchian for his part commented that he does not recall any previous appeal to the Constitutional Court for which so little corroborating evidence was adduced. Judge Feliks Tokhian asked Hovannisian’s lawyer, Karen Mezhlumian, why so few precinct election commission members representing Hovannisian refused to sign the official protocols enumerating the number of votes cast for each candidate. Mezhlumian seemed unable to provide a convincing explanation.

At the same time, the nine Constitutional Court judges acknowledged there is widespread public distrust in official vote results. In a carefully worded sentence, they blamed this on a “combination of political, economic and administrative resources.”

Ever since the preliminary election results were made public, Hovannisian has engaged in maximalist rhetoric without offering a clear strategy for securing the annulment of the election outcome. He has also scrupulously avoided any confrontation with police that could escalate into violence.

Meeting with Sarkisian on February 21, three days after the vote, Hovanissian suggested three alternative courses of action: that Sarkisian acknowledge him as the rightful election winner; that Sarkisian call a repeat presidential ballot; or that Sarkisian schedule a preterm parliamentary election in which all the 131 mandates would be allocated under the proportional system. Predictably, Sarkisian rejected those alternatives and Hovannisian withdrew the offer last week.

The authorities for their part made several counterproposals that Hovannisian rejected in turn. The first was that Hovannisian personally head an ad hoc parliamentary commission on constitutional reforms which the opposition has been pushing for. Then on March 11, Galust Sahakian, a deputy chairman of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said the authorities are also ready to appoint representatives of Hovannisian’s Zharangutiun party and other opposition groups to oversight bodies such as the parliament’s Audit Chamber and the State Commission on the Protection of Economic Competition. The authorities might even consider letting opposition members head those bodies, Sahakian said.

On March 10, Hovannisian embarked on a hunger strike on Yerevan’s Freedom Square, declaring that Sarkisian will be sworn in for a second term only “over my dead body.” The Armenian leadership dismissed that statement as blackmail and deplored Hovannisian’s rejection of an invitation to meet again with Sarkisian. “We note with regret Mr. Hovannisian’s refusal to examine all outstanding issues comprehensively and in detail,” Sarkisian press spokesman Armen Arzumanian said. “We can only hope that Mr. Hovannisian has correctly evaluated the situation and is soberly conscious of dangers stemming from the de facto rejection of dialogue."

Parliamentary speaker Hovik Abrahamian, who managed Sarkisian’s reelection campaign, met with Hovannisian late last week to propose a dialogue on how to resolve the standoff. He told journalists afterwards that the Armenian authorities are ready to make “reasonable” concessions, but stressed again that Hovannisian’s calls for fresh presidential or parliamentary elections remain “unacceptable."

The Armenian authorities are, moreover, by no means the only object of Hovannisian’s ire. He has lashed out at Russia and at the European People’s Party and at the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, for their endorsement of Sarkisian’s reelection. (The church had also urged Hovannisian to end his hunger strike and opt for “more constructive ways” of political struggle, eschewing “manifestations of intolerance and hatred.”)

And in a move that could have serious repercussions, Hovannisian has said he does not recognize the authority of the OSCE’s Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a peaceful political solution to the Karabakh conflict. One of the main provisions of his election program was a pledge to recognize the breakaway region as an independent state.

Hovannisian has consistently affirmed that he is acting on behalf of the Armenian people in defense of their will, as reflected in the hypothetical real distribution of votes. But popular support for him appears to be crumbling. Attendance at his public meetings in Yerevan has vacillated between 5,000 and 10,000, compared with the tens of thousands who turned out to back a similar protest by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian in the wake of the February 2008 presidential ballot.

The weekly “168 zham” editorialized on March 16 that “Raffi has not yet found the formula for transforming a wave of protest into a political struggle.” It said that failure is destroying the faith and expectations of thousands of people. Another former presidential candidate, Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikian, questioned the wisdom of Hovannisian’s hunger strike. “As a means for political struggle, a hunger strike has never made a difference in the world,” Hayrikian commented to the daily “Zhamanak.”

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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