By Ruzanna Stepanian
President Robert Kocharian appeared confident on Monday that the wave of successful anti-government uprisings across the former Soviet Union will not reach Armenia, saying that it has a strong and efficient government. He also joined other Armenian leaders in stressing the need for major concessions for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Kocharian’s comments, made at a meeting with students of Yerevan State University, were his first public reaction to the recent dramatic events in Kyrgyzstan whose longtime autocratic president was toppled by angry opposition crowds as a result of reputedly fraudulent parliamentary elections. The Kyrgyz revolution rekindled talk of a similar regime change in Armenia where the opposition refuses to accept the legitimacy of Kocharian’s reelection two years ago.
The Armenian opposition already tried unsuccessfully last spring to replicate Georgia’s spectacular “rose revolution.” The success of the November “orange revolution” in Ukraine and the anti-government revolt in Kyrgyzstan could tempt its leaders to make another push for power this year.
Kocharian reiterated his argument that they stand no chance of ousting him in a similar fashion because his administration boasts a much stronger security apparatus and has a better economic track record than the toppled regimes in the three ex-Soviet republics did. He said those regimes were led by Soviet-era elites that were swept aside by their younger former disciples. Armenia has already had two such “generation changes” since the fall of Communism and is not in a post-election period, he added.
“These four factors have nothing to do with the situation in Armenia,” Kocharian continued, responding to a student’s question. “Nobody doubts the determination of Armenia’s government. The generation change has long taken place in Armenia. In Armenia, we have no oppositionists that were dismissed for working actively [in government]. On the contrary, [they were fired] either for shortcomings or a number of other sins.”
Kocharian did not say that the disputed 2003 elections that gave him a second term in office were more democratic than those held in Georgia, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan. He instead complained that his political opponents are too obsessed with regime change in Armenia to stop challenging his legitimacy and end their year-long boycott of parliament sessions.
“They have failed not because they are too bad, but because our country is better and its government is more effective. If they realize this, maybe their complexes will ease and they will calm down,” he noted in a remark that might be construed as both ridicule and praise.
Kocharian’s top allies have likewise ruled out any spillover effects of the ex-Soviet revolutions. “The situation in Armenia is not like that in neighboring countries or Central Asian republics,” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian told reporters on March 28.
Kocharian again cited official macroeconomic statistics to defend his seven-year record in office, dismissing claims that Armenia’s economic growth has largely benefited a small class of wealthy government-connected citizens. He admitted that even his wife Bella shares skepticism about the official growth figures.
“My wife told me ahead of this meeting yesterday, ‘Don’t talk much about that growth, you get criticized for that’. But I am convinced that it is necessary to talk about that,” he said, complaining that government ministers shy away from publicly defending the their economic policies.
According to official figures, the Armenian economy grew by 10 percent last year and is on track to expand at a similar rate this year.
Kocharian insisted that benefits of the growth are finally trickling down. He argued, for example, that the government plans to spend an extra 77 billion drams ($170 million) in 2005.
Kocharian also pointedly acknowledged the inevitability of major Armenian concessions as he commented on the current state of the Karabakh peace process. “Today we must accept that compromises for the conflict’s resolution are inevitable,” he said. “As for the extent of those compromises, let us not talk about them today.”
Kocharian repeated his influential Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s claims that a pro-Armenian solution to the Karabakh dispute requires strong public support for the authorities in Yerevan. “The firmer we are, the more we will get,” the Armenian leader said. “The more we get, the better.”
Sarkisian, who is seen as Kocharian’s most likely successor, made a case for a compromise settlement with Azerbaijan in his latest public statements on Karabakh. Some observers and media have speculated that Yerevan is preparing ground for its acceptance of a new peace plan put forward by the U.S., Russian and French mediators.
The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan are expected to discuss the plan at a meeting in London later this week. The two men could also set a date for potentially crucial talks between Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev.