Rock Star Confronts Armenian Leader as Rally Marks Deaths

As Armenians mark the deaths that tarnished President Serzh Sargsyan’s 2008 rise, anger at his re-election has stirred diaspora in the world of U.S. heavy metal.

Serj Tankian, lead singer of Grammy award-winning Armenian-American rock band System of a Down, has written to Sargsyan saying “it’s time for change” after non-government organizations reported widespread voting fraud. The president, who beat his nearest rival by more than 20 percentage points at last month’s ballot, says he’s comfortable with his victory.

Thousands of Armenians have followed runner-up Raffi Hovhannisyan’s call to challenge the official election results as opposition groups seek to gain traction against Sargsyan’s rule. Ten people died after the president’s success five years ago triggered clashes between protesters and police on March 1, 2008. Hovhannisyan laid flowers at the scene today.

“The day isn’t only about the current wave of discontent and new-found civic activism behind opposition leader Raffi Hovhannisyan,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in the capital, Yerevan, said Feb 27 by phone. “The larger challenge for the government is to regain trust, and clearly the opposition now holds the upper hand in terms of momentum and initiative.”

Armenia’s currency, the dram, has lost 1.4 percent against the dollar in 2013, data compiled by Bloomberg show. It’s fallen 0.8 percent since the Feb. 18 elections, compared with no change for the lari or manat in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan.

‘Falsified Elections’

Sargsyan won 59 percent of the vote to Hovhannisyan’s 37 percent, according to official results that Tankian called flawed in an open letter to the president published this week by local media.

While Sargsyan wrote back asking for Tankian’s help to fight “impudence and hostility” in Armenia, the response didn’t satisfy the 45-year-old singer, who demanded the president listen to the complaints of the country’s citizens.

“Corruption, injustice, emigration, lawlessness and falsified elections” are prompting Armenians to emigrate, Tankian wrote. “Citizens across Armenia are protesting the outcome of the elections and the injustice inherent in the political establishment.”

The South Caucasus country, whose exports include zinc, copper and semi-precious stones, relies on its far-flung diaspora to support the economy, with remittances accounting for about 20 percent of its economic output, according to Commerzbank AG.

Kim Kardashian

Aside from Tankian and his band, which won a Grammy award in 2006, other famous members of Armenia’s overseas community include U.S. celebrity Kim Kardashian, singer and actress Cher, tennis player Andre Agassi and Tracinda Corp.’s Kirk Kerkorian.

After plunging 14 percent in 2009 following Lehman Brothers Holding Inc.’s collapse, gross domestic product will advance 4.3 percent this year, the World Bank predicts. More than a third of the landlocked nation’s 3 million people live in poverty, while unemployment was 5.9 percent at end-2012, official data show.

February’s election was dominated by the attempted assassination of one candidate, a hunger strike by another and the decision of three hopefuls including businessman Gagik Tsarukyan not to stand at all.

Local observers and NGOs registered more than 400 violations during the elections, with infringements including ballot stuffing and attempts to vote more than once.

‘Steal’ Victory

The vote “demonstrated improvements over previous presidential elections but the limited field of candidates meant the elections weren’t genuinely competitive,” according to Tonino Picula, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission.

Hovhannisyan, a former foreign minister, has sought to tap into concern at the vote’s validity, touring the country to mobilize support.

“I won’t allow anybody to steal your victory from you,” Hovhannisyan told to more than 1,000 people in the southern city of Kapan Feb. 27. Addressing a crowd 10 times that size in Yerevan’s Liberty Square yesterday, he said there’s “no way back” and pledged to bring victory.

While today’s protest is being held in Myasnikyan Square in Yerevan, where the deaths occurred in 2008, Hovhannisyan “is reasonable enough to avoid confrontation and act within the law,” according to Hovik Abrahamyan, head of Armenia’s parliament. Sargsyan’s party won 68 of the legislature’s 131 seats at elections last May.

Pressure Tools

“Violence won’t honor our state and political parties,” Abrahamyan told the National Assembly on Feb. 27. The government won’t contravene the law in dealing with the protest, he said.

For the time being, the demonstrators’ aim is to keep filling the square, according to Tatul Hakobyan, political expert at Civilitas Foundation in Yerevan.

“The levers of power -- the security service, the army and the police -- are in Sargsyan’s hands and, if necessary, pressure can be exerted,” he said yesterday by phone. “Maybe there won’t be dangerous developments in the coming days but if Hovhannisyan succeeds in bringing thousands of people to the square, which is his goal, the authorities will apply harsh methods.”

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