By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian sought on Tuesday to lower the temperature in his war of words with Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who is increasingly emerging as his main challenger in the upcoming presidential election.
Ter-Petrosian, meanwhile, claimed that the Armenian authorities have stepped up the harassment of his supporters in an effort to disrupt his next rally in Yerevan scheduled for Friday.
“Let us not get petty and squander our resources in debates on the mistakes and omissions of the past,” Sarkisian said in a speech in parliament. “Let us debate and cooperate on issues relating to the future.”
The remarks, clearly addressed to Ter-Petrosian, came just three days after Sarkisian effectively kicked off his presidential campaign with strong verbal attacks on the ex-president. He said Ter-Petrosian must “repent and apologize to the Armenian people” for his past failings and warned the latter against changing the country’s existing political order.
The attack, launched at a congress of the governing Republican Party (HHK), was Sarkisian’s first public response to Ter-Petrosian’s harsh criticism of Armenia’s “corrupt and criminal” leadership. The bitter recriminations set the stage for a fraught clash between the two rival camps in the presidential ballot slated for February 19.
The Armenian premier, who held key security positions in the Ter-Petrosian administration from 1993-1998, now appears keen to defuse the mounting political tensions, promising to be forgiving towards his political opponents.
Presenting his cabinet’s draft budget for next year to the National Assembly, he said: “In the next five years, the government’s response to our opponents will be the following: A more single-minded work, the formation of an atmosphere of solidarity and cooperation, magnanimity, mutual love and respect.”
The Ter-Petrosian camp sees no such tolerance at the moment, however. In a joint statement printed by several pro-opposition newspapers on Tuesday, Ter-Petrosian and one of his top opposition allies, Hanrapetutyun party leader, Aram Sarkisian, said the authorities are illegally trying to minimize attendance at the Friday rally. They urged supporters to document and report all instances of government “repression” against them.
“Let no policeman, tax inspector, local government official or crime figure doubt that they will think criminal liability in four months from now,” the statement said. “The authorities’ frantic efforts to impede the rally show that the Kocharian-Serzh regime is scared of nothing other than speech. One is scared of speech only when it is true.”
The Ter-Petrosian camp says in particular that the authorities are trying to prevent it from spreading word of the upcoming rally in the city’s Liberty Square. Two youth activists of a small opposition party aligned with the ex-president claimed to have been detained on Monday night while posting leaflets urging Armenians to “reject” Serzh Sarkisian. One of them, Narek Galstian, told RFE/RL that they were set free three hours later after proving a written explanation of their actions.