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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
08YEREVAN113 2008-02-13 11:32:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Yerevan
Cable title:  

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE PROFILE: ARTUR

Tags:   PGOV PHUM PREL PINR KDEM AM 
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FM AMEMBASSY YEREVAN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6994
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA 1451
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION WASHINGTON DC
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 0534
					C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 YEREVAN 000113 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/05/2018
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PREL PINR KDEM AM
SUBJECT: PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE PROFILE: ARTUR
BAGHDASSARIAN (RULE OF LAW PARTY)


Classified By: CDA Joseph Pennington, reasons 1.4 (b,d)

-------
SUMMARY
-------



1. (C) Ex-parliament speaker and 39-yr-old
presidential hopeful Artur Baghdassarian of the
centrist-opposition Orinats Yerkir (Rule of Law)
party continues to run a consistent second in
mission-sponsored polls. The only challenger with
double digit poll numbers, the charismatic
Baghdassarian also appears to be the second-best
funded candidate based on his robust advertising
campaign around the country, which PM Sargsian
lopsidedly leads. Baghdassarian portrays himself
as an economic problem-solver who will stamp out
corruption, smash monopolies, help small
businesses, cut taxes, and create new jobs. He
also promises to create an Armenia truly committed
to European values. The big question is whether
Artur will stay in the race or back another
candidate, most likely Levon Ter-Petrossian (LTP).
END SUMMARY.



--------------------------


THE CANDIDATE'S BIO


--------------------------





2. (SBU) CANDIDATE BIO: Artur Baghdassarian was
born in Yerevan to a family originally from the
northern Shirak (Gyumri) region (a relative Orinats
Yerkir stronghold). He studied law at Yerevan
State University, simultaneously working as a
reporter at the "Avantgarde" newspaper where he
eventually became deputy chief editor. In the
early nineties, Baghdassarian got his political
start in then-President Ter-Petrossian's Armenian
National Movement (ANM), working in the Shengavit
district of Yerevan, and was elected to the
district council in 1993. He continued his
education from 1994-1997 at the Kremlin-affiliated
Academy of State Service in Russia.



3. (C) Upon his return from Moscow, he and his
close associates founded the Orinats Yerkir (Rule
of Law) party in 1998, which he was subsequently
elected to lead. In 1999 he was elected to the
parliament from the single-candidate district of
Shengavit. In 2003, as Orinats Yerkir's top party
list candidate, Baghdassarian became the youngest
speaker ever to lead Armenia's parliament. Since
that time, Baghdassarian has been dogged by
persistent rumors that his rapid rise to political
prominence was fueled by quiet backing and funding
from ruling party leaders anxious to create a tame
alternative to Armenia's more strident opposition.
As speaker, Baghdassarian's attempt to maintain his
opposition credentials and enhance his public
reputation by frequently criticizing his coalition
partners in government eventually proved untenable.



4. (C) In May, 2006, he resigned the speaker's
post, almost certainly pushed out from a ruling
coalition that had lost patience with his desire to
have it both ways. His party was instantly
abandoned by its more mercenary parliamentarians,
who jumped ship for other pro-governmental
factions. In the May 2007 parliamentary elections,
he was re-elected to parliament from Orinats
Yerkir, the larger (by one seat) of two
parliamentary opposition parties, though much
diminished from its size while in government.
Baghdassarian is married, has two children, and is
now expecting his third child.



--------------------------


HIS POLLING NUMERS


--------------------------





5. (SBU) The January 2008 IRI/Gallup polls continue
to show Baghdassarian receiving a second place
share of votes, and frontrunner Sargsian's distant,
but next closest challenger. While his support
dipped from 13 to 11 percent between December and
January, he is still the only presidential
candidate besides Sargsian -- whose numbers soared
from 35 to 43 percent in the same time period -- who
consistently receives double digit support.

YEREVAN 00000113 002 OF 004


Baghdassarian also rates as the second most popular
political leader in the race, after Sargsian, by a
64 to 53 percent margin on favorability. His
Orinats Yerkir party saw its reputation as the
political party that can solve the countries'
problems improve over December-January, moving past
the moribund, oligarch-led Prosperous Armenia to
occupy second place behind Sargsian's ruling
Republican Party.



6. (C) In a December 24 meeting with the CDA,
Baghdassarian and his deputy, Mher Shahgeldian,
said they didn't believe the mission's polls, and
thought his real numbers were much higher than
Sargsian's (ref A). Producing his own spreadsheet
with polling data he had paid an unspecified firm
to collect, Baghdassarian claimed he was polling 36
percent to Sargsian's 25, and LTP's 15 percent. He
previewed what he publicly stated after the
meeting, that any poll related to the Armenian
Sociological Association -- which Gallup used to
collect the data -- could not be trusted. He
estimated that sixty percent of the poll's
respondents were afraid to tell the truth, fearing
retribution by authorities if they were found to be
critical of them.



--------------------------


"NEW ARMENIA - OPEN YOUR EYES!"


--------------------------





7. (SBU) Under the campaign slogan, "New Armenia --
Open Your Eyes!" the youthful-looking Baghdassarian
uses his campaign appearances to rail against the
authorities' plunder of the country. Pledging to
stamp out corruption and return the country's
misappropriated wealth to its people,
Baghdassarian's key economic promises are to double
salaries and triple pensions, create up to 150,000
new jobs, reduce taxes, and crack down on tax
evasion -- promises that his main rival Serzh
Sargsian has sarcastically dismissed as the words
of a want-to-be "magician." Dwelling on the
continued appreciation of the national currency,
the Armenian dram, Baghdassarian repeatedly charges
that the authorities are intentionally keeping many
Armenians in poverty in order to buy their votes.
Baghdassarian's other key campaign pledge is to
professionalize the army and end compulsory
service.



8. (SBU) His detailed, technocratic platform (all
32 pages: long, turgid, and seldom-read manifestos
being the norm) includes reducing poverty,
mitigating the causes of emigration, and leveling
the playing field for disadvantaged small and
medium businesses. One of his controversial
promises, more recently picked up by rival
candidate LTP, is to help Armenian citizens recover
the ruble-denominated savings they lost in state-
run banks following independence in the early
1990s, another pledge Sargsian has dismissed as
empty.



--------------------------


A WOMEN'S ADVOCATE


--------------------------





9. (SBU) With the help of Heghine Bisharian, his
articulate, female campaign manager and prominent
fellow parliamentarian, Baghdassarian has made a
visible effort to court women voters in the
election. Bisharian has been a prominent
spokesperson for the campaign, appearing at least
as often as the candidate. In a rare move among
Armenia's national politicians, Baghdassarian
sought out prospective female voters at a women's
focus group meeting arranged by Bisharian on
January 31 in Yerevan. Also, at his first major
Yerevan rally held in Freedom Square on February 3,
Baghdassarian was prominently joined on the dais by
several women supporters, including Bisharian, who
gave a long address -- virtually unknown in the
strongly male-dominated arena of Armenian national
politics. Baghdassarian has publicly pledged to
name women to key positions in his government if he
wins the election.



--------------------------



YEREVAN 00000113 003 OF 004


PARTY STYLES ITSELF AS CHRISTIAN DEMOCRATS


--------------------------





10. (SBU) The party's main strongholds are in
Yerevan and the northern region of Shirak whose
capital, Gyumri, has never fully recovered from the
massive December 1988 earthquake that claimed
25,000-50,000 lives. Orinats Yerkir is one of the
few parties that appears to have functioning
regional branches (ref C). The party claims to
have a growing number of more than 100,000 members,
a milestone that was reached when Baghdassarian was
speaker of the parliament and the party had
ministerial portfolios. Orinats Yerkir is a
centrist party that, according to its co-founder
Mher Shahgeldian, models itself after Christian
Democratic parties in western Europe. It has close
ties with European institutions, and Baghdassarian
even secured funding from the French government to
open a French-language European university in
Yerevan, which is now in operation -- though the
university has never secured Education Ministry
accreditation.



--------------------------

-
A CHANGE OF TUNE? SIGNS OF UNION WITH LTP GROW


--------------------------

-



11. (SBU) When accepting his party's endorsement
for the presidential race in early December 2007,
Baghdassarian explained why he and Orinats Yerkir
could not support ex-president Levon Ter-
Petrossian's rival bid for the presidency. At the
time, he said he disagreed with LTP's
characterization of Armenia as a "gangster state,"
a term the ex-president used in his first Yerevan
rally on October 26. Baghdassarian also stated
that he opposed LTP's approach of "totally
dismantling the state and legal system." That
said, the candidate has always nuanced his position
by saying his party was ready to work with LTP and
other opposition parties in ensuring a free and
fair vote.



12. (C) As the campaign has progressed, however,
Baghdassarian has softened his stance on a merger
and taken up some of the same hard-hitting, anti-
corruption themes as LTP. In his first major
national rally on February 3 in Yerevan's Freedom
Square (ref B), Baghdassarian hinted -- to chants of
"Levon, Levon" -- at a possible merger of opposition
forces, but implied he himself would be the figure
behind whom LTP and other opposition leaders would
unite. Since his rally, Baghdassarian has
continued to publicly comment that there will be
"regroupings in the opposition camp." He has
acknowledged publicly and privately that he is in
talks with LTP about joining forces, but
disingenuously insists that either of the two men
could be the one to lead a unified ticket.
(COMMENT: It is absurd to imagine LTP stepping
aside in favor of the young Baghdassarian.
However, the latter's strong rally turnout on
Sunday may have strengthened Baghdassarian's
ambition to go it alone -- or at least raised his
bargaining price. END COMMENT)



13. (C) Although Baghdassarian has some business
backers and party members, he apparently has not
secured the backing of any of Armenia's truly
wealthy and politically-connected oligarchs. And
in spite of extensive negotiations, neither has his
Orinats Yerkir party gained any support from other
political forces or endorsements from any
significant civic groups as both LTP and Sargsian -
- and even bit-player Vazgen Manukian of the
opposition National Democratic Union party -- have.



--------------------------


COMMENT


--------------------------





14. (C) Baghdassarian has a genuine following among
the voters, as the polling data show. He has
probably also benefited slightly from the fact that
the authorities tend to view him as unthreatening:
he and his party are not under nearly as
comprehensive a media blackout as Levon Ter-
Petrossian. In the early days of the campaign,

YEREVAN 00000113 004 OF 004


ruling party figures would even try to deflect
public and international interest in LTP's
candidacy by saying "why aren't you paying more
attention to Artur; his poll numbers are much
higher?" Baghdassarian could also benefit -- as
perhaps could Vahan Hovannissian, and some
observers think even Vazgen Manukian -- from many
voters' desire not to vote for either Serzh
Sargsian or LTP. Baghdassarian might be seen as a
"safe" choice by those who are fearful about not
voting for Sargsian, or as a "pox on both their
houses" protest choice by those who dislike
Sargsian but also still cannot forgive the former
president or believe that a vote for LTP is a path
to political violence.



15. (C) Baghdassarian's chances are weighed down by
his baggage. As a "young man in a hurry" over the
last five years, the unquestionably smart
Baghdassarian has been too clever for his own good.
His continual wheeling and dealing, posturing, and
telling interlocutors whatever he thinks they want
to hear -- and he has good instincts for what
people want to hear -- have left him mistrusted by
many in Armenia's politically-active class.
Whereas the opposition believes (as do we) that
Baghdassarian sold himself to Kocharian and/or
Sargsian as the means to advancement in 2003, the
ruling regime despises him for not staying bought.
Baghdassarian's other major weakness is his lack of
powerful backers to keep the ruling party's widely
presumed "administrative resources" at bay as the
votes are being tabulated and reported. A
widespread public conviction is that it will still
be a brass-knuckles and back-room business once the
precinct doors close for the vote counts on
election night. Those voters who may still nurture
hope to turf out the current incumbents -- as
opposed to making an empty gesture -- will most
likely cast their ballots for LTP or Vahan
Hovannissian.
PENNINGTON