By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian completed his political comeback late Friday with an emphatic announcement of his participation in the forthcoming presidential elections made in front of more than 20,000 people attending his first rally in more than a decade.
In a 90-minute speech in Yerevan’s Liberty Square, he reiterated his fierce criticism of Armenia’s current leadership, again describing it as a “criminal regime which is corrupt from top down.” Ter-Petrosian also said that President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian now accept the kind of a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh which he advocated in 1997-1998 and which they rejected as “defeatist.”
“I intended to make my final decision on the eve of the start of the electoral process,” Ter-Petrosian told the crowd that repeatedly interrupted the speech with “Levon! Levon!” chants. “However, repressions which the authorities unleashed against my supporters recently as well as the huge energy of this rally make that decision urgent. Therefore, from now on I declare myself a candidate to the presidency of the Republic of Armenia.”
“From now on, any repression or any act of terror by tax bodies against my supporters will be deemed a criminal violation of the electoral rights of citizens and will be presented as such to both our public and international bodies,” he added to rapturous applause.
Ter-Petrosian spent four hours at a police station in Yerevan earlier this week negotiating the release of a dozen loyalists arrested on Tuesday while publicizing his rally. His supporters say the “illegal” police actions testify to growing government fear of his presidential bid. The strong attendance of the rally will reinforce their belief that he will be Sarkisian’s main challenger in the elections due in February or March and can defeat Kocharian’s preferred successor.
As was the case during his previous public speech made on September 21, Ter-Petrosian did not mince words to express his attitude towards the country’s current leaders, saying that their power is based on tight control of the security apparatus, the judicial system and electronic media as well as an “atmosphere of fear.” “For them the homeland is a conquered territory or business entity,” he charged.
Ter-Petrosian elaborated on this claim by accusing Kocharian, Sarkisian and their inner circle of personally controlling the most lucrative forms of economic activity through direct ownership of business or “state racketeering.” “The three main principles of the capitalist or market-based economy have been breached: creating equal opportunities, ensuring fair competition and protecting private property,” he said.
“Otherwise, in which other country can an ordinary bus driver get so rich in one or two years that he is able to make tens of millions of dollars in investments not in his native Artsakh (Karabakh) but in the United States of America? Or how can a 25-year-old young man become one of Armenia’s ten wealthiest businessmen just two or three years after graduating from university?” he asked, clearly referring to Sarkisian’s controversial brother Aleksandr and Kocharian’s son Sedrak.
“In the last five years, the criminal regime has stolen at least three to four billion dollars from the people,” he charged. “If that sum had been invested in Armenia we would have had a qualitatively different country. If it had been invested in Artsakh it would have already been independent.”
Ter-Petrosian went on to dismiss as fraudulent official statistics that show the Armenian economy expanding at a double-digit rate for the past six years. He said economic growth has been much slower and has largely resulted from remittances from hundreds of thousands of Armenians living abroad. He went on to slam Yerevan-based representatives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for regularly praising the Kocharian administration’s economic track record. He claimed that they are well aware of the real state of affairs in the economic sphere but admit it only in their confidential reports sent to Washington.
The Ter-Petrosian rally came the day before the eighth anniversary of the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament which left then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials dead. That was the reason why it also featured two other opposition speakers: Demirchian’s son Stepan and Sarkisian’s brother Aram. The latter reaffirmed his and his radical opposition Hanrapetutyun party’s strong support for Ter-Petrosian return to power.
The still mysterious killings were another major theme of Ter-Petrosian’s speech, with the 62-year-old ex-president comparing them to the April 1915 arrest and subsequent execution of hundreds of intellectuals in Istanbul which marked the start of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Ter-Petrosian effectively implicated Kocharian in the 1999 attack, saying that the latter greatly benefited from it and obstructed the search for possible masterminds of the shootings. “Willy-nilly Kocharian directed all suspicions at himself, which means he must have had serious reasons to take such a risk,” he said, adding: “The October massacre was the main development that cleared the broad way to the formation and development of Kocharian’s regime.”
Similar allegations have also been made by relatives and friends of the assassinated leaders. Kocharian and his allies have always dismissed them. They have argued in particular that Nairi Hunanian, the leader of the five gunmen who burst into the Armenian parliament building eight years, insisted during his trial that he had masterminded the shock attack.
Ter-Petrosian noted, however, that in his initial pre-trial testimony Hunanian implicated Aleksan Harutiunian, the then chief of Kocharian’s staff who now runs Armenian state television, in the killings. Harutiunian’s subsequent release from jail was illegal, he claimed.
Predictably, Ter-Petrosian also stood by his view that Armenia’s sustainable development hinges on a compromise solution to the Karabakh conflict. “Until that problem is solved, until the blockades strangling us are lifted, until relations with our immediate neighbors are normalized and until our country is not integrated into regional and international systems, Armenia will not be able to develop and get stronger in accordance with the demands of the contemporary world,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian had been forced to resign in February 1998 by his key ministers led by then Prime Minister Kocharian for advocating an international peace that called for a gradual resolution of the Karabakh dispute and indefinitely delayed agreement on the disputed enclave’s status. Kocharian and his allies, by contrast, stood for a package peace deal that would solve all contentious issues at once and formalize Armenian control of Karabakh.
Nonetheless, the Armenian authorities did largely accept the international mediator’s existing peace proposals that also call for a step-by-step settlement. They argue that unlike the 1997 plan, the existing plan makes it clear that Karabakh’s status will be determined in a referendum of self-determination. It sets no time frame for the holding of such a vote, though.
Ter-Petrosian dismissed the proposed referendum as a “face-saving ambiguous provision.” “Thus, after having wasted so many years … the current authorities of Armenia have quietly and secretly agreed to a plan which they had diligently presented and defeatist and treacherous in the past,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian claimed at the same time that Kocharian has never been committed to changing the Karabakh status quo and, contrary to the mediators’ hopes, will not sign up to the proposed peace deal before completing his final term in office.
Kocharian supporters will counter that he has accepted on the whole all of the proposals made by the OSCE Minsk Group since 1998. They are also bound to point out that Ter-Petrosian did not mention in his speech the controversial episodes of his own rule that lasted from 1990-1998. The period was marked by a surge in government corruption and elections criticized as deeply flawed by Western observers.
Ter-Petrosian famously ordered troops to the streets of Yerevan in September 1996 to suppress opposition protests against his hotly disputed reelection. He insists that the vote was not rigged.
Ter-Petrosian hinted on Friday that he will admit mistakes in his further public pronouncements but insisted that he never lied to Armenians. “I have never hidden the truth from the people, no matter how bitter it is,” he said. “I have never given false promises and engaged in populism or demagoguery. And I am not going to betray those principles.
“Let that be seen as an unbeneficial political behavior. Let that affect my rating. I am who I am and who I will be.’
“I was like that in 1988 on this podium,” he continued, referring to his leadership of the popular movement for Armenia’s unification with Karabakh. “And you understood and trusted me and my comrades from the Karabakh Committee, the result of which has been an independent Armenia and a liberated Artsakh. I am absolutely certain that you will understand and trust this time as well.”