Armenia opposition protests again over vote

YEREVAN – Thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Armenia’s capital for a second day on Thursday and said they would not leave until the victory of Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan in a presidential election is overturned.

Official results gave Sarksyan, a close ally of outgoing President Robert Kocharyan, 52.86 percent in a vote on Tuesday that Western observers said had been broadly fair. Sarksyan has pledged to continue his predecessor’s policies.

His chief opponent, former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, alleged the vote was distorted by ballot-stuffing and intimidation of opposition activities. Official results gave him 21.5 percent of the vote.

Perched high in the Caucasus mountains, Armenia is in a region emerging as a key transit route for energy supplies from the Caspian Sea to world markets, though it has no pipelines of its own.

Reuters reporters at the protest on Freedom Square, outside Yerevan’s opera house, said between 15,000 and 20,000 demonstrators had gathered on Thursday — roughly the same number that protested the day before.

“Our protest will be permanent,” said Nikol Pashinyan, a senior aide to Ter-Petrosyan. “We demand that the Central Election Commission declare the election invalid and call a new election,” he said.

Authorities have not given permission for the protest but police kept a low-key presence and did not try to intervene.

In a statement, 53-year-old Sarksyan said he would not allow the protests to drag the ex-Soviet state of 3.2 million people into turmoil. He said the vote was fair.

“Every person has the right to freedom of speech but any … attempt to provoke instability is not permissible in a democratic country,” he said.

DISPUTES WITH NEIGHBOURS

Sarksyan will take over a country with a growing economy but which is hampered by disputes with two of its neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war in the 1990s over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and some analysts warn it could flare again into fighting.

BP-led pipelines shipping Caspian Sea oil and gas to world markets pass near the conflict zone.

Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia and the border is shut, a consequence of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in which Ankara backed Azerbaijan.

Ties between Armenia and Turkey are also complicated by the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One. Turkey strongly denies Armenian claims the killings were genocide.

Sarksyan, like Kocharyan, is a native of Nagorno-Karabakh and he is seen in Ankara as a hardliner.

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul on Thursday said he hoped Sarksyan’s victory would lead to a normalization of relations.

“I sincerely wish that .. an atmosphere based on reciprocal trust and cooperation can be established,” Gul said in a message of congratulations to Sarksyan.

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