War trauma, voter apathy haunt Armenia ahead of polls

Like many Armenians three years ago, Artyom Muradyan hoped the reformist prime minister would turn around the country’s fortunes after decades of poverty and corruption. 

Instead, he says, Nikol Pashinyan led the small South Caucasus nation into a disastrous war and ceded swathes of territory to Azerbaijan last year.

On Sunday, the 24-year-old former soldier — who fought in the six-week conflict together with his elder brother and father — will cast his ballot for an electoral bloc headed by Pashinyan’s top rival.

“He gave us so many promises,” Muradyan told AFP at his home in the north of the capital Yerevan. “He could not deliver on those promises and he gave away our lands.”

More than 6,000 people were killed in the war over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia’s humiliating defeat sparked protest rallies and calls for Pashinyan to resign. 

The 46-year-old former newspaper editor has instead called early parliamentary polls in the hope of defusing the crisis and renewing his mandate.

But many Armenians say they no longer trust him and fear he might cling to power.

– ‘Idiot’ –

Muradyan’s father Marat fumes when he speaks about Pashinyan, who was hailed as a hero after spearheading a wave of peaceful protests against the old elites in 2018.

“He’s an idiot,” said the 51-year-old truck driver, taking a drag on his cigarette. He questioned Pashinyan’s economic track record and made fun of his “hysterical” campaign during which he brandished a hammer at rallies.

“This is a hammer that belongs to the people, and on June 20 it will fall down on your empty heads,” Pahshinyan declared at one of the rallies, addressing opponents.

The Muradyans are backing the electoral bloc of Pashinyan’s main rival, ex-president Robert Kocharyan, who led the country between 1998 and 2008 and counts Russia’s Vladimir Putin among his friends.

Polls show that Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party is neck-and-neck with Kocharyan’s electoral bloc, called simply Armenia.

Unlike Muradyan and his family, many in Armenia remain undecided in the tight race, and some say they will stay home on Sunday. 

Aram Petrosyan says he does not think the election will change anything.

“I will not vote. I don’t want to be lied to again,” the 62-year-old chess tutor told AFP on the sidelines of a tribute to fallen soldiers at Yerevan’s National Library.

His 22-year-old son and 35-year-old son-in-law both fought in the Karabakh war. The son-in-law, father of two grandchildren for Petrosyan, was killed in October and the family located his body only in January.

Some grieving parents told AFP they are not interested in politics and do not want to discuss the upcoming election.

Artyom Muradyan, who served in an artillery unit, said his country was traumatised, with many voters feeling betrayed. 

“They don’t know who to trust,” he said. 

– ‘Everyone lost someone’ – 

Alisa Yaylakhanyan breaks down in tears when she talks about the recent past and her hopes for the future.

“Everyone lost someone last year,” she told AFP at a cafe in central Yerevan. Several of her friends had died in the war.

The 24-year-old designer backed Pashinyan’s electoral bloc in an election in 2018 but is now enthusiastic about Kocharyan, who hails from Karabakh and was its leader in the 1990s.

“When he was in power, those were the best years,” she said, referring to his decade-long stint at the helm of Armenia. 

“When he was president, we did not have a massive war.”

Yaylakhanyan also praised the 66-year-old veteran politician for his tight links with Russia and accused Pashinyan of seeking closer ties with arch-enemy Azerbaijan and its backer Turkey.

A poll released by MPG, a polling group affiliated with Gallup International, last week showed Kocharyan’s bloc leading narrowly with 24.1 percent to 23.8 percent for Pashinyan’s party.

Satenik Muradyan, Artyom’s mother, said she was not sure she would want to live in Armenia if Pashinyan remains in power. 

The past few months have been tough, the 48-year-old said. When her two sons and husband went to the front, she could not eat or sleep. 

They came back alive, but she still cries nearly every day “over all the boys” who did not make it back.

“I’ve always been happy with my country,” she said. “I have never before wanted to leave.”

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