Armenia’s intensifying parliamentary election campaign has been jolted by a scandal over the secret recording of a recent confidential meeting between a top opposition leader and a Yerevan-based Western diplomat. Details of that conversation have been controversially disclosed by a pro-establishment newspaper, in what is widely seen as a government effort to discredit Artur Baghdasarian, the former parliament speaker whose Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party is a major opposition contender in the May 12 elections.
Baghdasarian’s meeting with the number two figure at the British Embassy in Armenia, held at a popular Yerevan restaurant last February, reportedly focused on the authorities’ handling of the upcoming vote. The Russian-language paper, Golos Armenii, claims to have received audio of that conversation from unknown individuals, publishing much of its purported transcript on April 21 and April 26. The disclosed content of the conversation was hardly sensational, with Baghdasarian reportedly urging the European Union to express serious concern at what he described as government plans to rig the elections. He reportedly stated that they can already be considered fraudulent because the government is seriously restricting opposition access to the electronic media and intimidating and bribing voters.
The diplomat was quoted as responding that the EU is unlikely to do that at the moment because the Armenian leadership is very careful and canny in trying to retain control over the country’s next parliament. “I suppose that they are smarter and wiser than we are … There has to be some blatant violation in order for the EU to come up with such a statement,” he said, according to Golos Armenii. The diplomat was also said to have complained that of all major EU states having diplomatic missions in Yerevan, only Britain and Germany seriously care about Armenia’s democratization.
Orinats Yerkir and its leader swiftly denounced the secret recording, illegal under Armenian law, saying that it is part of a “well-prepared smear campaign” waged by the ruling regime against the party. They argued that the newspaper report did not expose anything new or extraordinary as Baghdasarian has repeatedly stressed in his public pronouncements the need for Armenia to finally have an election recognized as free and fair by the West. The British Embassy also condemned the recording as “dishonest and deplorable.” In an April 26 statement, the embassy said British diplomats regularly meet with a wide range of Armenian politicians in order to have “as complete and objective a view as possible of the political process.” That is a “normal and accepted practice of any embassy anywhere in the world,” it said. Both the embassy and Baghdasarian charged that the content of the conversation in question was distorted but did not elaborate.
Golos Armenii and other supporters of President Robert Kocharian directed their fury at Baghdasarian, saying that he behaved dishonestly and unpatriotically by seeking EU criticism of his country months before election day. Kocharian went further, accusing his former protégé of committing high treason on April 27. “For me, this is a real manifestation of treason,” he told students at Yerevan State University. “That manifestation is all the more ugly given that it was done at his own initiative.” Baghdasarian’s response to the attack was equally strongly worded. “The traitors,” he told reporters, “are those who rig elections and disgrace the fatherland.”
The bitter exchange was quite a change from the relationship that existed between the two men before Orinats Yerkir was forced to quit Armenia’s governing coalition one year ago. Kocharian had gone to great lengths to ensure that Baghdasarian would be elected parliament speaker after Orinats Yerkir finished second in the last general elections, held in May 2003. That fuelled speculation that Kocharian could handpick Baghdasarian, now 38, as his successor after completing his second and final term in office in early 2008. Their personal rapport subsequently deteriorated due to Orinats Yerkir’s growing criticism of the government (in which it was represented) and conciliatory line on the Armenian opposition.
The populist party, which has a pro-Western foreign policy agenda, is now thought to be one of the country’s most popular opposition groups. The latest attempt to discredit it suggests that Kocharian and Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian are worried about its possible strong showing in next week’s polls. Yet the disclosure of Baghdasarian’s meeting with the British diplomat is unlikely to seriously affect the ambitious ex-speaker’s popularity rating, not least because few Armenians buy into state propaganda. Instead, it increases the possibility of Orinats Yerkir’s involvement in post-election street protests planned by other, more radical opposition forces.
The scandal has also cast a fresh spotlight on the role of the National Security Service (NSS), the Armenian successor to the KGB, in political processes in the country. The feared security agency marks the anniversaries of the establishment of Bolshevik Russia’s VChK secret police as a professional holiday, and its function of political policing has been increasingly obvious in recent years. Kocharian’s office, for example, revealed last December the existence of a hitherto unknown NSS division charged with protecting “constitutional order.” Many Armenian politicians, journalists and other government critics have long suspected that their phones are illegally wiretapped by the NSS. Few of them doubt that NSS agents secretly recorded Baghdasarian’s meeting. Kocharian sought to disprove this dominant view, saying that another opposition leader, Aram Karapetian, got hold of audio of the conversation before Golos Armenii. The radical oppositionist, who was interrogated by the NSS on April 25, believes that the ex-KGB deliberately sent the recording to his office to deflect suspicions about its involvement.
In any case, the whole affair is a serious cause for concern for local commentators, human rights activists and probably Yerevan-based Western diplomats. As the pro-opposition newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan editorialized on April 26, “Nobody can now be sure that there are no ‘bugs’ planted in their apartment, that their phone conversations are not wire-tapped, that their every step is not watched.”
(Haykakan Zhamanak, April 28; RFE/RL Armenia Report, April 27, April 23; Golos Armenii, April 21, April 26; Statement by the British embassy, April 26; Zhamanak Yerevan, April 26)