Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s former president acclaimed in the West for his conciliatory stance on the Karabakh conflict, has rocked the domestic political arena with his first public speech in nearly a decade. Addressing hundreds of supporters in Yerevan on September 21, he described the current Armenian leadership as “corrupt and criminal” and called for its ouster. The blistering attack was a further indication that he is likely to contest the presidential election due early next year.
Ter-Petrosian has kept an extremely low profile ever since he was forced to resign in February 1998 by his key cabinet members, notably then-prime minister Robert Kocharian, for advocating what they saw as a “defeatist” international peace plan on Karabakh. The plan, put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group, envisaged a phased settlement of the conflict with Azerbaijan and would indefinitely delay agreement on the status of the disputed territory. Kocharian and other hardliners found the proposed peace accord too risky and demanded a “package” deal that would recognize continued Armenian control over Karabakh.
In his speech, Ter-Petrosian called the unresolved state of the Karabakh dispute “the greatest crime” committed by the ruling regime over the past decade. He reaffirmed his belief that Armenia’s security and sustainable economic development are contingent on the normalization of the country’s relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, Ter-Petrosian did not come up with any formulas for Karabakh peace, saying that he does not know how the latest impasse in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks can be overcome.
The 62-year-old, who led Armenia to independence from the Soviet Union, also denounced the Kocharian administration as an “institutionalized mafia-style regime that has plunged us into the ranks of third world counties.” He accused it of rigging elections, abusing human and civil rights, illegally controlling courts, and extorting bribes from leading Armenian businessmen.
Kocharian, who succeeded Ter-Petrosian as president and is now completing his second and final term in office, was quick to rebut the accusations, speaking to journalists on September 25. Kocharian described Armenia as “one of the fastest developing countries in the world,” pointing to its robust economic growth, which has averaged 13% since 2002 despite the continuing Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockades. “I became prime minister of Armenia in March 1997 and inherited a $300 million [state] budget … Next year, Armenia will have a budget worth about $2.5 billion,” he said.
Kocharian went on to warn that his predecessor will become an “ordinary opposition figure” and face “all the consequences stemming from that” should he join the unfolding presidential race. He specifically threatened to “remind” Armenians of the severe socioeconomic hardship that they had suffered following the Soviet collapse and the outbreak of the war with Azerbaijan. Throughout his presidency Kocharian has exploited painful popular memories of the 1990s, which many analysts view as the main obstacle of Ter-Petrosian’s return to power.
The reclusive ex-president himself indicated in his speech that he is not sure he is popular enough to make a strong showing in the upcoming election. He complained in particular that many Armenians still do not understand the importance of Karabakh peace. Ter-Petrosian’s political allies are more sanguine in that regard, saying that he can capitalize on his international stature and what they see as widespread popular dislike of the government. Furthermore, they claim that he is the only politician capable of defeating the presumed election favorite, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, and have been trying to muster broad-based opposition support for his presidential run.
However, most of the other major opposition forces have refrained from throwing their weight behind Ter-Petrosian so far. Some of their leaders pointed out last week that Ter-Petrosian himself rigged elections and bullied his political opponents when he was in power from 1990 to 1998. They recalled his decision in September 1996 to send tanks to the streets of Yerevan to enforce the official results of a reputedly fraudulent presidential election that gave him a second five-year term.
Meanwhile, Sarkisian and his Republican Party, which swept to a landslide victory in the recent parliamentary elections, claim to be untroubled by the prospect of being challenged by Ter-Petrosian. Whether this is really the case is unclear, though. Far more certain is the fact that Ter-Petrosian’s comeback would add an element of unpredictability to the 2008 election and perhaps reverse growing public apathy about politics. That could, in turn, complicate government attempts to rig the vote.
Even the ex-president’s most bitter opponent, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party), has welcomed his possible participation in the presidential ballot, saying that it will spur a healthy political debate on Karabakh, relations with Turkey and other key issues. The ARF, which is particularly influential in the worldwide Armenian Diaspora, had been controversially banned and saw dozens of its activists imprisoned on terrorism and coup charges during Ter-Petrosian’s rule. The nationalist party was re-legalized immediately after Kocharian’s rise to power and has since been represented in his governments. It has pointedly refused to endorse Sarkisian for the Armenian presidency and intends to nominate its own presidential candidate instead.
This was probably the reason why, on September 29, Ter-Petrosian paid a sensational visit to the ARF headquarters in Yerevan and met with two top party leaders (both of whom were jailed by him in 1995). A short statement by the ARF said the talks focused on “issues related to the forthcoming presidential elections.” “Both sides stressed the need for a politico-ideological debate,” it added. The very fact of such a meeting was a measure of just how intriguing political life in Armenia is becoming these days.
(A1plus.am, September 29; Aravot, September 26; Armenian Public Television, September 25; Haykakan Zhamanak, September 22)