By Armen Dulian
In his first public pronouncements in over five years, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian has offered a bleak outlook for Armenia, saying it has paid a heavy price for its failure to embrace his more conciliatory approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Ter-Petrosian reluctantly agreed to answer questions from a small group of journalists late Wednesday on his return from the United States where he attended the opening of former President Bill Clinton’s presidential library. He confirmed reports that he met with U.S. President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the high-profile ceremony. The brief encounter amounted to an “exchange of a few words,” he said.
Turning to domestic affairs, Ter-Petrosian claimed that the Armenian side will never get a better peace deal with Azerbaijan than the one which was offered by international mediators in 1997 and which he could not sell to his government and the general public. He also stood by his view that his country can not achieve quick economic recovery without a Karabakh settlement.
“Not only is there no progress on the Karabakh issue, but I would say, with deep pain, that I see sad consequences,” said the enigmatic 59-year-old who led Armenia to independence from the Soviet Union. “The resolution of that problem is becoming increasingly complicated for us. We will never get what we could get in 1997. Even with God’s help.”
Ter-Petrosian would not be drawn on what he thinks should be done now. “It’s not my obligation. It’s the obligation of the current government,” he said.
The 1997 peace proposals drafted by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called for a gradual resolution of the Karabakh conflict. According to them, agreement on the disputed enclave’s status would be preceded by Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territories and the lifting of Azerbaijan’s transport blockade of Armenia.
Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party argued at the time that the Armenians would indefinitely retain their control of Karabakh while enjoying the economic benefits of open borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, several key government members, notably then Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, rejected the plan as too risky. They insisted on a “package” peace accord that would settle all contentious issues.
The disagreements degenerated into a power struggle, leading to Ter-Petrosian’s resignation and his replacement by Kocharian in February 1998. The U.S, French and Russian co-chairs of the Minsk Group have since come up with two package peace proposals that were largely accepted by the Kocharian administration and the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
The most recent of those proposals was the subject of an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace conference held on the Florida island of Key West in April 2001 and was nearly signed by the conflicting parties afterward. The Key West plan reportedly envisaged Karabakh’s formal incorporation into Armenia.
There has been speculation in recent months that the mediators are reverting to the step-by-step strategy of conflict resolution as they feel that the parties remain far apart on the key question of Karabakh’s status. One variant mentioned in the Armenian and Azerbaijani press is Armenian troop pullout from three of the seven Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh in exchange for the restoration of economic links between the two ex-Soviet neighbors. Official Yerevan has not explicitly denied those reports.
Ter-Petrosian did not clarify why he thinks Armenia and the NKR will be forced to make more concessions to Azerbaijan, something which he predicted during his famous September 1997 news conference followed by a lengthy newspaper article. He said instead that the failure to heed his warnings has taken its economic and demographic toll on Armenia.
“Armenia has lost a lot,” he said. “First of all, it has lost people. For me this is the greatest loss. I mean the emigration. Secondly, we have lost time for economic development, thereby lagging behind our neighbors. These are irreversible things.”
The Armenian government will probably cite the country’s strong macroeconomic performance in recent years, praised by Western donors, to disagree with the gloomy picture painted by the ex-president. Government officials may also argue that the average per-capita incomes in Armenia and Azerbaijan remain approximately the same despite the latter’s much vaunted oil wealth.
Ter-Petrosian, who has kept an extremely low profile since losing power, was also vague about his possible return to active politics sought by the HHSh, now a small opposition party. “For me coming to power is not an aim. If there is a task, a mission and if I feel that my involvement in it is necessary, I will not sit idly by,” he said.
Asked whether that means he will contest the next presidential election, he replied, “I can not express an opinion about what will happen in four years’ time.”
Ter-Petrosian is believed to have contemplated a presidential run ahead of last year’s election controversially won by Kocharian but decided not to run apparently after concluding that he is still unpopular. His eight-year tenure is better remembered by many Armenians for enormous hardship, power shortages and an upsurge in government corruption than the spectacular military victories over Azerbaijan. The Kocharian administration has used that sentiment to vilify the former regime.
Ter-Petrosian was also asked if he regrets appointing Kocharian as prime minister in April 1997, a move that proved fateful for his political future. “I don’t regret that at all because I brought him in as prime minister and that was apparently my sole step which received the unanimous support of the Armenian people,” he said.