By Astghik Bedevian and Emil Danielyan
The war of words between Armenia’s present and former leaders continued on Monday when Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian accused former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, his main election rival, of seeking to “surrender” Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
Commenting on Ter-Petrosian’s statement that he is ready to again serve as president only for three years, Sarkisian scoffed, “He probably thinks that three years is enough to surrender Karabakh.”
The allegation was a throwback to bitter government infighting that culminated in Ter-Petrosian’s resignation in February 1998. Independent Armenia’s first president quit under pressure from his hard-line cabinet members, notably then Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and Interior Minister Serzh Sarkisian, after advocating a compromise peace plan on Karabakh. It called for a gradual resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute and would indefinitely delay agreement on Karabakh’s status. The disputed enclave would remain under Armenian control pending such agreement.
Kocharian and key government ministers rejected the plan as “defeatist” and stood for a package peace deal that would solve all contentious issues at once and legitimize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. But this did not prevent Armenia’s current leadership from largely accepting the international mediator’s existing peace proposals that also call for a step-by-step settlement. The authorities in Yerevan argue that unlike the 1997 document, the existing peace plan makes it clear that Karabakh’s status will be determined in a referendum of self-determination.
However, it sets no time frame for the holding of such a referendum, suggesting that it might never be held and leading Ter-Petrosian and his allies to argue that the two peace formulas are essentially the same. “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,” the former Armenian leader said during an October 26 rally in Yerevan.
Addressing another rally held in the Armenian capital on Friday, Ter-Petrosian cited past statements by former leaders of Karabakh, including Kocharian, that credited him with the Armenian victory in the 1992-1994 war with Azerbaijan. One such statement, made by Kocharian in a 1995 letter to Ter-Petrosian, said “the grateful people of Artsakh (Karabakh) will never forget your personal contribution to our heroic struggle.”
Sarkisian did not address these arguments as he attacked Ter-Petrosian after being asked by journalists to comment on the ex-president’s latest speech. “I found extremely strange thoughts expressed in that speech. But each of us is free to decide what to say and to propose,” he said without elaborating.
“You can’t fool people with eloquence,” added Sarkisian. “If somebody is trying to prove something which can’t be proved, if somebody is saying that we are worse off than we were ten years ago, that is not my problem. That is the problem of that person.”
Ter-Petrosian spent a large part of that speech on trying to disprove Kocharian’s and Sarkisian’s allegations that he is responsible for enormous hardship suffered by Armenia’s population during the early 1990s. The outgoing Armenian president has accused his predecessor of “ruining” the economy, while Sarkisian has suggested that the latter “repent and apologize” for his alleged misrule.
Ter-Petrosian countered on Friday that Sarkisian was a key member of his cabinet from 1993-1998 and never uncovered or spoke of any government failings during that period. “Serzh Sarkisian is as much [part of] the current government as [he was of] the former one,” he said.
With Sarkisian refusing to answer further questions from journalists, it was not clear if the premier agrees with that assertion.
In a separate development, Ter-Petrosian met on Monday with Peter Semneby, the European Union’s special representative to the South Caucasus, to discuss the increasingly tense political situation in Armenia and preparations for the February 19 presidential election. A statement by his campaign office said Ter-Petrosian reiterated his call for the international community to seek the passage of key anti-fraud amendments to Armenian electoral legislation. Those would ensure that all ballots for the vote be printed abroad and that voters have their fingers marked by indelible ink after casting them.
Ter-Petrosian said on Friday that failure to adopt these amendments would render “meaningless” international monitoring of the upcoming vote. He claimed that the Armenian authorities printed hundreds of thousands of extra ballots and bribed tens of thousands of people to vote for pro-government parties in multiple polling stations to ensue a desired outcome of the May parliamentary elections. Those elections were described as largely democratic by Western observers.
The idea of inking voters’ fingers to preclude multiple voting was already suggested by Council of Europe experts and backed by other Armenian opposition leaders last year. The pro-government majority in Armenia’s parliament rejected it.