By Astghik Bedevian and Karine Kalantarian
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian attacked and warned former President Levon Ter-Petrosian against attempting to change Armenia’s existing political system over the weekend as he was formally confirmed as the presidential candidate of the ruling Republican Party (HHK).
The HHK leadership unanimously backed his candidacy in the upcoming presidential election at a congress held in Yerevan on Saturday. Sarkisian was also elected HHK chairman, completing his takeover of a party which controls most government bodies in the country and claims to have 135,000 members.
With Sarkisian long seen as President Robert Kocharian’s preferred successor, the four-hour congress was expected to be a mere formality. As was the case during the previous HHK gatherings, there were no discussions on key issues facing Armenia and the party’s electoral strategy and tactics. The only visible novelty this time around was the presence of shapely fashion models who helped 650 or so delegates find their seats in a sports arena in Yerevan that served as the congress venue.
Sarkisian spent half of his 30-minute acceptance speech responding to Ter-Petrosian’s harsh criticism of the current Armenian leadership. It was a clear sign that he considers the enigmatic ex-president to be his main election challenger.
“They want to break up the state,” the influential premier said of Ter-Petrosian and his opposition loyalists. “They won’t succeed. Any [such] attempt will be thwarted.”
Breaking his nearly decade-long silence, Ter-Petrosian has accused Kocharian and Sarkisian of turning Armenia into a “gangster state” where government corruption and suppression of dissent are the norm. He has urged Armenians to help him bring down the ruling “criminal regime” in the election scheduled for February 19.
Kocharian was quick to react to his predecessor’s allegations late last month, accusing him of mismanaging the Armenian economy during his rule. Sarkisian, who had until now avoided publicly attacking Ter-Petrosian, echoed Kocharian’s assessment of the ex-president’s dramatic comeback.
“It is pathetic that Levon Ter-Petrosian has lost a sense of reality to such an extent that he … advises President Robert Kocharian and myself to leave the political arena,” said Sarkisian. “To avoid staying in his debt, let me give him another advice. He had better repent and apologize to the Armenian people for, to put it mildly, mistakes committed by him.”
“I am sure he won’t do that because he is filled with spite and has irreversibly fallen behind the course of life,” he added.
Sarkisian apparently referred to the first years of Armenia’s independence marked by an economic slump, mass unemployment and severe electricity shortages. Ter-Petrosian and his loyalists say much of the resulting enormous hardship was the result of the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia that all but cut off Armenia from the outside world. Kocharian insisted, however, that the Ter-Petrosian administration simply “ruined” the economy.
Sarkisian, who had help key government positions in Yerevan during most of Ter-Petrosian’s 1991-1998 presidency, would not say if he thinks he too bears responsibility for the alleged misrule. His comments were dismissed on Monday by Ararat Zurabian, the nominal head of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), one of the several opposition parties aligned with Ter-Petrosian.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Zurabian stressed that neither Kocharian, nor Sarkisian have directly commented on concrete accusations leveled against them by Ter-Petrosian. The HHSh chairman suggested that they try to disprove those accusations in a live televised debate with Ter-Petrosian.
Addressing a big rally in Yerevan on October 26, Ter-Petrosian specifically accused Kocharian, Sarkisian and their close associates of pocketing billions of dollars in taxes and informal payments allegedly extorted from local businesspeople.
In his Saturday speech, Sarkisian acknowledged that bribery, nepotism and other corrupt practices are widespread in Armenia. He indicated that if elected president, he will make sure that businessmen and other wealthy individuals close to the government do not get away with enriching themselves by illegal means.
“Tax evasion and corruption must be regarded as a disgraceful and condemnable phenomenon,” said Sarkisian. “We must not take into account family ties and friendship and must not regard as friends and supporters those people who will avoid paying taxes and tolerate this vicious phenomenon.”
The Armenian premier himself has long been accused by his opponents of sponsoring government-connected entrepreneurs who enjoy de facto monopoly on lucrative forms of economic activity. Most of the so-called “oligarchs” are now affiliated with the HHK.