Levon Ter-Petrosian is the man who led Armenia to independence from the Soviet Union and presided over an era of dramatic upheaval. Strong and assertive, he never minced words when expounding his views about his political opponents and the challenges facing his country. Yet, in retrospect, the impression is of a politician alienated from his people and intolerant of dissent.
The turning point in his presidency was his public proposal in 1997 to make concessions to Azerbaijan in order to bring about a quick solution to the Karabakh dispute. But while he demonstrated his skill at ridiculing his detractors, Ter-Petrosian never mastered the art of public relations. His key ministers, who quietly forced him into resignation in 1998, proved much more skillful in that regard.
The past five years are a long enough period to assess whether history has born out Ter-Petrosian’s arguments in favor of a speedy resolution of the Karabakh dispute. An objective look at the ex-president’s public pronouncements on Karabakh, which earned him acclaim in the West, produces a mixed picture.
It shows that Ter-Petrosian was right in believing that Armenia’s economic recovery depended on regional peace. His gloomy predictions, however, that without adopting a more conciliatory approach Armenia would find itself in international isolation and lag behind oil-rich Azerbaijan do not seem to have materialized.
Ter-Petrosian’s Karabakh initiative was launched at a special news conference in September 1997 (the first in several years) and a follow-up newspaper article. It was rejected by the most powerful members of his government and by the (suppressed) opposition. The former, led by then Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and then Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, became convinced that Ter-Petrosian must quit, and orchestrated a far more effective public campaign against what they portrayed as a planned “sell-out” of the Armenian-controlled region. Having easily won over the opposition, the two men achieved their goal in February 1998 when Ter-Petrosian tendered his resignation, somberly announcing the defeat of Armenia’s “party of peace.”
Ordinary Armenians stood on the sidelines of the regime change. Few of them understood what the government infighting was all about–another indication that, in launching his public diplomacy, the former president had missed the target.
Ter-Petrosian launched his ill-fated drive shortly after a team of French, Russian and U.S. mediators (who co-chair the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) put forward a new peace plan that envisaged a phased solution to the Karabakh conflict. The plan, accepted by Azerbaijan, would indefinitely delay agreement on Karabakh’s status, the main stumbling block, until the last stage of the peace process, which would start with the return of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Karabakh and the reopening of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. These confidence-building measures, the mediators reasoned, would create a more favorable environment for reaching a mutually acceptable deal on the status.
Ter-Petrosian fully accepted this approach, arguing in his article that “today Karabakh and Azerbaijan are not prepared to discuss the issue of Karabakh’s status because each of them has its own idea of that status, which sharply contradicts the other.”
However, the Sarkisian-Kocharian duo and the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) found the proposed phased settlement too risky and called instead for a single “package” peace accord that would settle all sticking points at once. They were particularly opposed to the return of the occupied Azerbaijani districts before an agreement on the status, saying that the Armenian side would lose its main bargaining chip without firm international guarantees that Azerbaijan will not again try to win back Karabakh (from much better military positions) and re-impose the economic blockade of Armenia.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the debate should have centered on these two equally valid strategies of conflict resolution. And yet Ter-Petrosian chose to divert it into another plane. Strangely, he focused the spotlight on Karabakh’s future status: an extremely sensitive issue that finds no short-term solution in his favored peace plan. “Let us not indulge in self-deception and cherish false illusions: We have no allies on the question of Karabakh’s independence,” Ter-Petrosian wrote.
This was enough to rekindle long-running suspicions about his willingness to place Karabakh back under Azeri rule. His long article, titled “War or peace? Time to get serious,” fills three newspaper pages. Less than 10 percent of it is about the phased peace plan. Even more amazingly, there are practically no arguments purporting to dispel concerns cited by proponents of a package settlement.
Only after Ter-Petrosian resigned did his close associates begin making the point that the international community would enforce safeguards against renewed fighting in the event of a step-by-step peace process. They have also argued that the Armenians, while having open borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, would be able to maintain Karabakh’s de facto independence by indefinitely vetoing any arrangement restoring Azerbaijani control over the Armenian-populated territory.
Ter-Petrosian, however, mentioned only that the NKR leadership (and presumably its allies in the Yerevan government) had also rejected a package plan drawn up by the Minsk Group earlier in 1997, concluding implicitly that they were not interested in any compromise solution to the conflict. Hence his emphasis on the need for an unspecified “mutual compromise” (not denied by his opponents) and stark warning that an impoverished Armenia cannot recover from its post-Soviet economic slump without the lifting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades.
Ter-Petrosian also warned that failure to go along with the phased peace proposals would lead to international sanctions against Armenia because “the international community will not tolerate the status quo [in Karabakh] for long.” But this was not to be the case, with the Minsk Group co-chairs presenting new, package peace proposals to the conflicting parties in November 1998, eight months after Kocharian’s election as president.
The new plan was based on the idea of Azerbaijan and Karabakh forming a “common state,” a Bosnia-type loose confederation. It was largely accepted by Armenia and the NKR, but rejected by Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev on the grounds that it would effectively formalize Karabakh’s 1988 secession from Soviet Azerbaijan. The current Armenian and NKR leaderships said the proposed arrangement on the whole reflects their position that Baku and Stepanakert (the NKR capital) must only have a “horizontal relationship” of two equal entities.
The “common state” formula appears to have been at the heart of all subsequent Minsk Group proposals, including those reportedly accepted by Aliev and Kocharian during intensive peace talks in Paris and Florida in early 2001. The two conflicting parties had never been so close to a peaceful settlement. The final peace deal was widely expected to be signed in Geneva in June 2001. However, the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit was cancelled at the last minute, with Aliev apparently backtracking on the agreements for fear of a domestic backlash.
Thus, the Armenians have not been a recalcitrant party in the eyes of the international community for the past four years, as Ter-Petrosian had predicted. Still, the ex-president was and is right in believing that the unresolved Karabakh conflict is a serious obstacle to economic development. Despite several consecutive years of growth, the Armenian economy remains hamstrung by a lack of foreign investment and high transportation costs.
The economic significance of a Karabakh settlement is acknowledged by Kocharian. But many of his loyalists think otherwise, playing down negative effects of the status quo and claiming that Azerbaijan needs peace more than Armenia does.
Ter-Petrosian, however, was wrong in asserting that the regional status quo hurts only Armenia and that oil-rich Azerbaijan will soon revitalize its economy and build an army capable of winning back Karabakh. As things stand now the two arch-rivals boast similar basic macroeconomic indicators, such as GDP per capita, and a significant percentage of their populations remains mired in poverty. Neighboring Georgia is hardly better off, suggesting that regional instability and closed borders leave all three impoverished Caucasus states, whose combined population is less than 14 million, unattractive for foreign investment.
Ter-Petrosian tried to sell a Karabakh peace accord to domestic constituencies as a “choice between bad and worst.” This came over as a let-down after the sweeping Armenian victory in the 1991-94 war for Karabakh. In fact, Ter-Petrosian claimed in 1997, the Armenians “did not win a war, but a battle.”
This line of argument was considered too dangerous by the political and military elite that had emerged from the Karabakh war and helped propel Ter-Petrosian into the presidency–including the falsification of the 1996 presidential elections. The illegitimate president now stood in their way and was soon ousted.
Ter-Petrosian’s unsuccessful public relations campaign epitomizes the style and personality of the 57-year-old former scholar. Hugely popular in 1989-91 for his hypnotizing speeches in support of Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia, Ter-Petrosian rolled back the country’s democratization by the mid-1990s, giving rise to authoritarian trends. His contacts with the local media and public appearances were becoming increasingly rare. Ter-Petrosian occasionally engaged in lengthy monologues on state television to blast his opponents. Like his Karabakh discourse, they largely failed to shape desired public opinion.
Ter-Petrosian’s weird refusal to make any public comments since his resignation has reinforced his image as an aloof and cynical politician. He remains a mystery for many ordinary Armenians and even politicians. No wonder that few of them have rushed to urge him to contest presidential elections scheduled for February 19, 2003.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.