Official Vote Results Dismissed by U.S. Envoy
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian garnered far more votes than were shown by official results of Armenia’s February 2008 presidential election and should have qualified for a run-off against Serzh Sarkisian, a senior U.S. diplomat suggested in a newly disclosed diplomatic cable by Wikileaks.
According to the government-controlled Central Election Commission, then Prime Minister Sarkisian won the election outright with about 53 percent of the vote. Ter-Petrosian, his main challenger, rejected the figure as fraudulent and staged non-stop demonstrations in Yerevan to demand a re-run of the ballot.
Eight protesters and two security personnel were killed and more than 200 other people injured as the Armenian authorities suppressed the protests on March 1-2, 2008.
“Mounting evidence … has called into question the government’s claim that PM Serzh Sarkisian won a legitimate first-round majority on February 19,” Pennington wrote to the U.S. State Department on March 10, 2008, according to WikiLeaks.
“Official figures gave [Ter-Petrosian] 21.5 percent (just over 350,000) of votes cast on February 19, and the true figure is doubtless substantially higher,” he wrote. “Our best guess would be somewhere between 30-35 percent (490,000 – 570,000 votes).”
“If a run-off election were held now, [Levon Ter-Petrosian] would very likely beat Sarkisian. Many Armenians now see LTP as the only one with a chance to break down what they see as the deepening entrenchment of a Karabakhi-led kleptocracy in Armenia, seemingly determined to monopolize every lever of political and economic power,” Pennington claimed.
In their preliminary verdict, Western observers mainly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the election was administered “mostly in accordance” with democratic standards. They toned down this positive assessment in their final report issued in May 2008.
The State Department distanced itself from these conclusions, describing the ballot as “significantly flawed.” Washington also pointedly declined to congratulate Sarkisian on his hotly disputed victory. Still, it stopped short of explicitly condemning the use of deadly force against Ter-Petrosian supporters.
While deploring the “extreme rhetoric” of some opposition figures and noting that Ter-Petrosian himself rigged elections when he served as Armenia’s first president, Pennington stressed that “Sarkisian’s supporters were the wrong-doers” during the presidential race.
“This may not have been [Sarkisian’s] own doing,” he said. “President Kocharian and other influential, anti-democratic forces may each have had their own reasons for engineering this outcome. However, Sarkisian at best has failed to take a strong stand against it, or the subsequent harsh crackdown [on the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition.]”
The diplomat went on to suggest that the new Armenian president might be more “progressive and democratic” than his predecessor and thus deserve Western support. “Withholding that support may pull the rug out from under what could be Sarkisian’s sincere desire to clean house,” he said.
Sarkisian’s standing in Washington improved considerably in the following months as he embarked on an unprecedented rapprochement with Turkey that was strongly welcomed and backed by the West. Ter-Petrosian has since repeatedly accused Western powers of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Armenia for “geopolitical considerations.”