Democratic Spirit Sweeps Armenia
Nationalist parliament head expected to win presidential election
AGANUSH GASPARYAN, wearing a simple black dress with her silver hair pulled tight into a bun, emerged from polling place 201 in a school on the outskirts of this capital city with a slight smile of satisfaction."Now they ask the opinion of the people," the grandmother declared. "Many years ago they didn't ask us. They said, this one is going to be the leader and you go vote for him. Now we have the opportunity to choose." Yesterday the people of this mountainous republic exercised this basic democratic right for the first time in their history. Six candidates, along with vice presidential running mates, are competing for the newly created post of president. About 2.2 million eligible voters entered booths in schools, hospitals, and even geology institutes to mark paper ballots with their choice. The calm and relatively ordered scenes of democracy here contrast with the tumult in the republic of Georgia just to the north. There, opponents call the recently elected government a budding dictatorship, leading many to question whether democracy will survive in the republics seeking independence from the Soviet Union. The Armenian election has not been without controversy, however. It took a supreme court decision to reinstate a candidate barred by the central election commission for errors in collecting signatures required to support his candidacy. And some candidates charge the election process has been rigged to favor Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the chairman of the parliament and the leader of the ruling Armenian National Movement.
Bitter campaign debate The campaign, which officially began on Sept. 28, has been marked as well by often bitter debate over the moderate policies of Mr. Ter-Petrosyan's nationalist government which ousted the Communists from power last year. While pursuing independence, Ter-Petrosyan is avoiding open confrontation with the Moscow leadership. Tomorrow, for example, he will join other republican leaders in signing a treaty to form a new economic community. Last month he backed a mediation effort by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to try to resolve the bloody dispute with the neighboring Azerbaijan over the fate of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan, a well-known radical nationalist, assails Ter-Petrosyan for betraying the results of a Sept. 21 referendum when about 95 percent of the population voted for independence. The decision to join talks on an economic pact is "immoral and illegal," he says. The bearded former dissident sees no benefit in economic ties with other Soviet republics. "We are getting the crumbs of what they don't have, what they are going to ask the West for," Mr. Hayrikyan says. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict raises even sharper emotions. Hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands made homeless in the Armenian-Azeri battle over the fate of this territory which began in 1988. Last month Yeltsin, along with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, arranged the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders from both sides and brokered an agreement to begin talks under their joint guarantee of security. This agreement "is capitulation on the part of Armenia," says vice presidential candidate Vahan Hovannessian, who shares the ticket of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation with actor Sos Sarkisyan. "In order to have a political solution, we must have our own army and defense system," insists Parliament member and presidential candidate Rafael Kazaryan. "Only after that will the Azerbaijanis be willing to talk to us." Ter-Petrosyan, who spoke exclusively to the Monitor in an interview on the eve of the election, defends his policies with the precision born of his many years as a scholar of ancient languages. "I want to stress that I never deceived the people, because I expressed my desire to participate in the economic treaty as well as in inter-republican structures before the [independence] referendum," he says. The overwhelming "yes" vote, he believes, was an endorsement of "a peaceful way to complete political independence."
Regional disputes As for the difficult Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, "such questions are solved either by war or by negotiation," says Ter-Petrosyan, who was one of the leaders of the movement to restore Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh. He defends his backing for the Yeltsin mediation effort as a means to guarantee an end to fighting until talks can take place. "Since neither we nor the Azerbaijanis want this war; since neither the central government nor the two sides are ready to solve the question in a civilized way through political negotiations ... our objective is to put an end to violations [of human rights] in this region, to establish constitutional law in Nagorno-Karabakh, to restore local government there, and to create a multilateral guarantee of security," he says. (A meeting with the Azeri leader under Gorbachev's sponsorship is planned for tomorro w in Moscow.) To the charge of "capitulation," the Armenian parliament head retorts: "The people who say this have no policy to offer in opposition to mine." Ter-Petrosyan's understated leadership apparently finds favor among the Armenian populace who, according to various polls, were ready to vote overwhelmingly for him. "Levon Ter-Petrosyan is the smartest one, the most educated one," says Greta Torossian, a housewife living in a settlement of brick homes with sheet-metal roofs perched on a Yerevan hillside. Along with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, she says proudly, "he is one of the three most clever men in the Soviet Union."
Opposition charges Hayrikyan sees Ter-Petrosyan differently. He calls Ter-Petrosyan a "totalitarian" who used "government terror" against his opposition, citing an incident where Armenian National Movement supporters attacked Hayrikyan's campaigners. He says the Armenian leader used his government position to get exposure beyond the one-time official television campaign appearance allowed all candidates. Hayrikyan declares the election result is illegal the day before the vote. With a smile, Ter-Petrosyan dismisses such talk as a "post-election campaign," saying his opponents are trying to "justify their future defeat." Other candidates share some of Hayrikyan's complaints and worry that local officials are resorting to old-style tactics of intimidation of voters. But they do not endorse his characterization of the entire election process. "Despite the violations of election rules, we think that the president who will be elected will be the legitimate president of the country," says Mr. Hovannessian. Indeed, at the polls, democracy seems alive and well. Samvel Gabrielian's wife is in shock when she discovers that her husband voted for Hayrikyan. "Really!" the mechanic's pregnant wife shouts. "Then don't come home." Samvel shrugs. "We have different points of view."