By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s decision to stand in next year’s presidential election will not force any changes in the electoral strategy of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), one of its leaders said on Monday.
“It would make no sense for the most influential political force participating in the presidential elections make changes in its strategy based on the participation or non-participation of another candidate,” parliament speaker Tigran Torosian told reporters. He said the HHK will unveil its campaign manifesto at a congress scheduled for November 10.
The congress is also expected to formally nominate the party’s top leader, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, as a presidential candidate. Sarkisian has been regarded as the election favorite since the HHK’s landslide victory in last May’s parliamentary elections. Observers believe that Ter-Petrosian’s political comeback makes the outcome of the vote due in February or March less predictable.
Ter-Petrosian announced his decision to run for president on Friday at a rally in central Yerevan attended by an estimated 20,000 people. In a 90-minute speech, he repeated his harsh criticism of Armenia’s current leadership and pledged to do his best to prevent a “reproduction of the criminal regime.”
Although the Ter-Petrosian rally was the biggest opposition protest staged in years, Torosian downplayed its significance and claimed that it did not live up to organizers’ expectations. “A lot was done to gather many people,” he said. “I don’t think that expectations were lived up to.”
In televised remarks broadcast on Friday, President Robert Kocharian dismissed Ter-Petrosian’s electoral chances, saying that his predecessor will not be Sarkisian’s main challenger. Kocharian said Armenians have not forgotten severe hardship suffered by them during the early and mid-1990s. He accused the Ter-Petrosian administration of “ruining” the Armenian economy.
Torosian, whose party supported Ter-Petrosian until 1998, was less categorical on that score, saying that the economy teetered on the brink of collapse at the time for “objective and subjective” reasons. “I believe the president of the republic referred to subjective processes,” he said.
The Armenian speaker also declined to endorse Kocharian’s claims that there are “at least two or three” opposition presidential candidates who are more popular than Ter-Petrosian. “Rivals are classified not by politicians but by the public with its votes,” he said.
Unlike Kocharian, Sarkisian has so far been quite cautious in commenting on Ter-Petrosian’s return to active politics and has yet to comment on the ex-president’s Friday speech. The Armenian premier avoided any contact with journalists as he visited the parliament building in Yerevan on Monday.
Kocharian’s highly negative assessment of his predecessor’s track record in power could put Sarkisian in a delicate position given the fact he held key government positions during most of Ter-Petrosian’s seven-year presidency. Sarkisian was appointed as Armenia’s defense minister in 1993 and later served as minister of national security and internal affairs in the Ter-Petrosian administration.
In a related development, police in Yerevan questioned on Monday several Ter-Petrosian loyalists who were controversially arrested last week while publicizing Friday’s rally in the city’s Liberty Square. The arrests followed a brief clash between riot police and a group of opposition activists, most of them members of the pro-Ter-Petrosian Aylentrank movement.
The 11 activists, among them two newspaper editors, were set free after four-hour negotiations between Ter-Petrosian and senior police officers. They say the violence erupted after police officers “illegally” stopped their march through the city center sanctioned by the Yerevan municipality.
The police, however, lay the blame on the oppositionists, saying that the latter interfered with traffic and littered streets with leaflets. They opened a criminal case under articles of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with “hooliganism” and assault on state officials. None of the oppositionists has been formally charged yet.
“They are now trying to show that our march disrupted traffic and so on,” Nikol Pashinian, editor of the “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily who led the action, told RFE/RL after being questioned by police investigators. “They’ve found two witnesses. One is a policeman and the other is a guy I’ve known for a long time. I asked [the police] to subject him to a psychiatric examination.”
Ter-Petrosian warned on Friday that he would consider any further act of “repression” against his supporters a “criminal violation of the electoral rights of citizens.”