Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) has set the date for the upcoming presidential election, which will seal the end of President Robert Kocharian’s ten-year rule. The vote, scheduled for February 19, is increasingly shaping up as a two-horse race between Kocharian’s long-time chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, and Levon Ter-Petrosian, the former Armenian president forced to resign by Kocharian and Sarkisian almost a decade ago. The two rival camps are gearing up for an uncompromising electoral battle, having already traded bitter accusations over their government records.
The CEC’s decision, announced on November 9, came the day before Sarkisian was officially nominated as the presidential candidate of his ruling Republican Party (HHK). In his acceptance speech at a pompous party congress in Yerevan, Sarkisian outlined his campaign manifesto, pledging to turn Armenia into a “strong state” and to “at least double” its citizens’ per-capita income. He also said that he would “considerably toughen” the Armenian government’s stated fight against corruption and stick to Yerevan’s long-standing position on the Karabakh conflict, which rules out the disputed territory’s return to Azerbaijani control.
A large (and the most significant) part of the speech was a response to the harsh criticism of the current Armenian leadership voiced by Ter-Petrosian in recent weeks. He signaled the end of his self-imposed political retirement on September 21 with a public speech (the first in nearly a decade) in which denounced the Kocharian administration as an “institutionalized mafia-style regime that has plunged us into the ranks of third world counties.”
Ter-Petrosian elaborated on his allegations at an October 26 rally in Yerevan attended by some 20,000 people. In a 90-minute address to the crowd, he accused the authorities of suppressing dissent, violating laws, and pocketing billions of dollars in taxes and informal payments extorted from local businesspeople. What is more, the former president effectively implicated Kocharian and Sarkisian in the still mysterious October 1999 assassination of then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serge), parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, and six other officials. Ter-Petrosian ended the speech by announcing his participation in the presidential ballot and urging Armenians to help him bring down the ruling “kleptocracy” (Haykakan Zhamanak, October 27).
The regime’s response was swift. In remarks broadcast by the country’s leading TV stations on October 31, Kocharian reminded Armenians of the severe socioeconomic hardship suffered by them during his predecessor’s 1991-98 presidency. Armenia’s GDP shrunk by more than half in 1992-93, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the wars in Karabakh as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which all but cut off the landlocked country from the outside world.
Kocharian downplayed the significance of these factors, insisting that the economic collapse primarily resulted from the Ter-Petrosian administration’s alleged incompetence and mismanagement. “Armenia’s industry was destroyed in a matter of several years,” he said (Armenian Public Television, October 31).
Sarkisian also did not mince words, hitting back at independent Armenia’s first president as he addressed the HHK congress. Instead of attacking and seeking to topple the current authorities in Yerevan, he said, Ter-Petrosian should “repent and apologize to the Armenian people for, to put it mildly, mistakes committed by him.” “His desperate attempts to return to the presidential palace pursue only one goal: not to serve his country and people but to take revenge on all those who had ever criticized him,” charged Sarkisian (168 Zham, November 13).
Both Sarkisian and Kocharian claimed that Ter-Petrosian remains too unpopular to pose a serious threat to them in the forthcoming election. But all indications are that the two Karabakh-born men, who were appointed to key government positions in Yerevan by Ter-Petrosian in the 1990s, are seriously worried about the political comeback of the savvy 62-year-old former scholar, widely acclaimed in the West for advocating a more conciliatory line on Karabakh. The regime exposed its jitters ahead of Ter-Petrosian’s rally by blocking any televised advertisement of the event and breaking up a promotional street march staged by a small group of opposition activists. Armenia’s leading TV stations, all of them overseen by the presidential administration, have also been hard at work, vilifying Ter-Petrosian with extremely biased coverage of his past and present political activities.
Also in October the authorities launched a controversial financial inspection of companies owned by Khachatur Sukiasian, the sole Armenian “oligarch” who has dared to publicly voice support for Ter-Petrosian. Two of those companies have already been accused by the State Tax Service of evading taxes. One of their chief executives is currently under arrest pending trial. Also facing accusations of tax evasion is a small TV station in Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri that broke ranks to air Ter-Petrosian’s September 21 speech in full. Its owner claims to have been warned against doing that by electronic media regulators in Yerevan.
The continuing absence of credible opinion polls in Armenia makes it difficult for observers to gauge the extent of Ter-Petrosian’s popularity. Relatively strong attendance at his landmark rally suggests that many Armenians disillusioned with their government are now ready to at least listen to the once revered man who led them to independence. Ter-Petrosian and his opposition allies will hold another demonstration in Yerevan on November 16.
On November 13 the pro-government daily Hayots Ashkhar reported that the Armenian presidential election will be a “bipolar confrontation” between the country’s current and former rulers and that other major political groups will have to either side with one of these camps or confine themselves to political sidelines.