Armenia Elections Get Personal as Premier Offers Son for POWs

Campaigning in Armenia’s parliamentary elections is turning personal as rivals play one-upmanship with the fate of soldiers held as prisoners of war by Azerbaijan to attack one another.

When acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told a campaign rally the captives would “forgive” a delay of one or two months in securing their return, ex-President Serzh Sargsyan retorted that he should offer his son to Azerbaijan in exchange for some of the prisoners.

Pashinyan hit back at Sargsyan, whom he ousted in Armenia’s 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” by accepting the proposal. “I officially declare to Aliyev, I offer my son in exchange for all the war prisoners,” the Armenpress news service cited him as saying on Tuesday, referring to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

His son Ashot, 21, who served in last year’s war, later backed the trade on Facebook. Pashinyan said his statement was an invitation to Sargsyan and his main election rival, former President Robert Kocharyan, to “go and negotiate” the release of hundreds of prisoners Armenia says are being held in Azerbaijan.

Aliyev hasn’t responded publicly. The authorities in Baku say they’ve returned all Armenian prisoners from the 44-day war that ended with a Russia-brokered truce in November, and that those who remain in detention are “saboteurs” captured after the fighting ended. Armenia has freed all of its Azerbaijani prisoners.

The flare-up isn’t the only strange twist in campaigning for the June 20 elections, which are taking place amid bitter divisions over the deaths of thousands of Armenian troops in the war and the loss of part of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

After Pashinyan urged other party leaders to join him in televised pre-election debates, Kocharyan told a campaign rally he’d rather choose weapons to face him in a duel.

Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, slammed the discussions on prisoner exchanges and appealed to politicians to raise the tone of debate Wednesday, warning that “speculations only increase tension in the country” and make it harder to secure the return of the captives.

This election is “particularly vindictive and vitriolic,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. While Armenia’s “post-war politics remain poisonous and polarized,” the vote offers a chance to overcome its political stalemate, he said.

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