By Karine Kalantarian and Astghik Bedevian
Opposition leader Vazgen Manukian expressed on Tuesday dismay at Levon Ter-Petrosian’s first public speech in a decade, saying that the former president failed to admit his responsibility for serious political and economic problems facing Armenia today.
Addressing hundreds of supporters on Friday, Ter-Petrosian referred to the Armenian government as an “institutionalized mafia-style regime which has plunged us into the ranks of third world counties.” He accused the administration of President Robert Kocharian of rigging elections, violating laws, engaging in corrupt practices and restricting civil liberties.
“To be honest, I am disappointed because Levon Ter-Petrosian faced the same accusations, made in stronger or softer terms, during his presidency,” Manukian told RFE/RL. “He should have structured his speech in a different way. He should have shown the roots [of those problems,] he should have given explanations.”
“It can be inferred [from his speech] that what is wrong today was right in the past,” he said. “It turned out that nothing has changed in [Ter-Petrosian’s] team in ten years.”
Ter-Petrosian critics believe in particular that Armenia’s culture of electoral fraud emerged during his eight-year rule. They specifically point to the conduct of the disputed September 1996 presidential election criticized as deeply flawed by Western observers. Ter-Petrosian sent tanks to the streets of Yerevan to quell violent opposition protests against the official vote results which showed him narrowly defeating Manukian, the then main opposition candidate. Manukian still claims to be the rightful winner of the vote.
The bitter standoff was the culmination of mutual antipathy that Ter-Petrosian and Manukian developed during the first years of Armenia’s independence. The two former scholars became the top leaders of the 1988 movement for Armenia’s unification with Nagorno-Karabakh before jointly heading the country’s first post-Communist government in 1990.
Manukian, who is also highly critical of Kocharian, may have extended an olive branch to Ter-Petrosian early this year when he agreed in principle to make his National Democratic Union (AZhM) part of an opposition electoral alliance comprising the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSH). Talks over the formation of such a bloc collapsed for reasons unrelated to the past rivalry between the AZhM and the HHSh.
Manukian, who intends to contest next year’s presidential election, claimed that Ter-Petrosian’s possible participation in the vote would make it easier for the authorities to legitimize a planned transfer of power from Kocharian to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Ter-Petrosian loyalists make similar claims about Manukian, saying that his presidential run would further split the opposition vote and thereby benefit Sarkisian.
Vahagn Khachatrian, a Ter-Petrosian associate who leads the opposition Aylentrank (Alternative) movement, said on Tuesday that the former president will act with a “totally new team” if he decides to join the presidential race. He said that team will include not only the HHSh, Aylentrank and the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party but also the People’s Party of Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian’s main challenger in the last presidential election.
Ter-Petrosian said on Friday that he has still not decided whether to run for president. He argued that pervasive government control of electronic media would make it very hard for him to get his message across.
Victor Dallakian, a veteran opposition parliamentarian, predicted on Tuesday that the 62-year-old ex-president will after all enter the fray. “Common sense suggests that after such tough evaluations of the situation in the country the first president of the republic should run,” he told reporters.