By Armen Zakarian
Vazgen Manukian, a veteran Armenian politician, was nominated on Thursday by his opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) party as a candidate in the February 19 presidential elections. In his acceptance speech at an annual AZhM congress, Manukian called for the ouster of the Armenian leadership but skirted the issue of a single opposition challenger popular enough to defeat President Robert Kocharian.
“The AZhM can not act like an observer,” he told several hundred party activists. “The AZhM must join this fight, and I promise you that we’ll go to the end and achieve a common victory.”
The center-right AZhM is a major player in the 16-party opposition coalition which has vowed to remove Kocharian from office, possibly with a single presidential candidate. Manukian, 56, is one of the opposition leaders who might theoretically take on that role. He hinted recently at the possibility of an AZhM endorsement of People’s Party leader Stepan Demirchian, who appears to be more popular with ordinary Armenians.
But on Thursday Manukian made no mention of the ongoing opposition consultations on their joint candidate. He instead challenged speculation that Kocharian will almost certainly win the ballot by capitalizing on his grip on power and substantial financial resources. Citing the September 1996 presidential elections in which Manukian was the main opposition contender, he said: “We won at the time. The government system got such a deadly blow that it crumbled less than two years later.”
Although official results of the 1996 vote, never recognized by the opposition and international monitors, gave victory to then President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the latter was forced to resign in February 1998.
Manukian, who served as prime minister in Armenia’s first post-Communist government, also drew parallels between the upcoming elections and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, during which he was defense minister. “During the Karabakh war we faced a more powerful enemy. Everybody was saying that it’s impossible to defeat him. But we did it.”
In his comments on foreign policy, Manukian indicated that Armenia should balance its alliance with closer ties with European nations. “We must go into Europe, and not follow in Russia’s footsteps, as some people want. Russia too is moving closer to Europe,” he said.
Manukian’s pro-Western views are not shared by left-wing opposition groups with a clearly pro-Russian orientation, notably the Armenian Communist Party (HKK). HKK representatives were conspicuously absent from the AZhM congress.