By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian broke his nearly decade-long silence Friday with an unusually harsh attack on the current authorities in Yerevan which he branded “criminal and corrupt” and accused of turning Armenia into a “third world country.”
Making his first public speech since his dramatic resignation in 1998, Ter-Petrosian said he has still not decided whether or not participate in the upcoming presidential election. He also reiterated his belief that Armenia’s sustainable development is impossible without a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the opening of its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
“I have not made a decision yet,” Ter-Petrosian told hundreds of admiring and expectant loyalists who gathered at a Yerevan hotel to celebrate the 16th anniversary of Armenia’s independence. “I am still examining, weighing up, considering things. My approach is purely political. I can’t be guided by emotions. Adventurism is alien to my character.”
“Until I know the effectiveness of my would-be steps, I won’t take steps. Of course, there is a change of atmosphere, a change of mood but in my view, but it has not yet, so to speak, come to a boil,” he said.
The remarks will reinforce the widely held belief that Ter-Petrosian is not sure that he is popular enough to mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the reputed election favorite. Many Armenians apparently continue to associate their 62-year-old former leader with severe hardship they had suffered following the Soviet collapse and the outbreak of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s current leadership has exploited that sentiment to keep Ter-Petrosian and his allies on the political sidelines ever since forcing them out of power in February 1998.
Ter-Petrosian, who has been touring the country to gauge popular support for his comeback for the past several weeks, said that he would have trouble getting his message across. He emphasized the fact that all major Armenian TV stations are controlled by or loyal to the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo. “We must find ways of overcoming that,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian indicated that he also needs to build broad-based opposition support for his presidential bid and does not think that his traditional support base, mainly made up of his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party, alone can help him make a strong election showing. “The only way to get rid of these authorities is the consolidation of all sound political, public, intellectual and spiritual forces around a single [presidential] candidate,” he said.
The Ter-Petrosian camp also comprises several HHSh splinter groups as well as Armenia’s most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutyun. None of the other major opposition parties has publicly voiced support for the reclusive ex-president’s return to power.
Echoing the Hanrapetutyun leaders’ discourse, Ter-Petrosian described regime change as the chief national priority. “We have an institutionalized mafia-style regime which has plunged us into the ranks of third world counties,” he charged. “Survival of this government gives us no chance of ever getting out of this situation.”
Ter-Petrosian added that he thinks the “greatest crime” committed by Kocharian and Sarkisian was their failure to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He said Azerbaijan is less and less prepared to make concessions to the Armenian side because of its mounting oil revenues. “From now on they will not agree to any concessions. I don’t know what needs to be done to get out of this situation,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian was forced to step down by his key ministers, including Kocharian and Sarkisian, after publicly advocating an internationally drafted peace plan that called for a gradual settlement of the Karabakh conflict indefinitely delaying agreement on the disputed territory’s status. His hard-line opponents rejected the proposed plan as “defeatist,” demanding that the international mediators come up with a package peace deal that would uphold Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. But this did not prevent them from embracing the mediators’ existing proposals that have a lot in common with the ones advocated by Ter-Petrosian.
Ter-Petrosian complained that many Armenians still do not think that their and their country’s prosperity is contingent on Karabakh peace. “Unless there is such understanding, I think nothing should be done and we should sit in our homes and see Armenia into a third world country whose sole capital is export of labor,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian further accused the Kocharian administration of rigging elections, trampling on laws, extorting bribes from businessmen, illegally influencing courts and restricting press freedom.
Critics of the former Armenian leadership will counter that Armenia lacked rule of law and independent courts and broadcast media even before Kocharian came to power. They believe that the culture of electoral fraud emerged in the country during Ter-Petrosian’s eight-year rule.
None of the elections held in Armenia at the time were judged free and fair by international observers. In fact, Ter-Petrosian sent troops to the streets of Yerevan in September 1996 to quell violent opposition protests against the official results of a reputedly rigged presidential election that gave victory to the incumbent.