By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian appealed to Armenia’s leading businessmen to defy the government and back his presidential bid as he again rallied thousands of opposition supporters in Yerevan at the weekend.
In another wide-ranging speech, Ter-Petrosian also sought to reach out to other, much bigger segments of the population, condemning government plans to raise taxes levied from small business and describing Armenian farmers as the country’s “unacknowledged” heroes. He also angrily hit back at continuing government claims that he “wrecked” the Armenian economy while in office.
Ter-Petrosian spent a considerable part of the 90-minute speech providing, in a characteristic academic manner, a detailed description of the politico-economic system of the medieval Mongol Empire which he said bears a striking resemblance to that of modern-day Armenia. He claimed that even the wealthiest Armenians are essentially at the mercy of President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, comparing the two men to Mongol khans who wielded unlimited power over their subjects. Mentioning Armenia’s leading government-connected “oligarchs” by name, he described them as “slaves” and said they will run the constant risk of losing their assets as long as Kocharian-Sarkisian duo remains in power.
“Until when will you put up with that humiliation?” Ter-Petrosian asked, addressing about 20,000 people who gathered in the city’s Liberty Square. “Until when will you put up with your slave-like status? Don’t you understand that with your servility you prop up the foundations of the khanate and condemn our entire nation, including your own children, to slavery?
“What keeps you from closing ranks and toppling the khan yoke loathed by everyone, including yourself? … How do you sleep at night? Can you look your wives and children in the eyes?”
“If you continue to dishonorably serve the current authorities, they will be able to destroy you one by one at any moment,” he continued. “But if you jointly oppose them, they won’t last even for one day.”
So far only one of the “oligarchs,” who made their fortunes thanks to their government connections, has lent support to Ter-Petrosian’s bid to return to power. Khachatur Sukiasian, a parliament deputy and the main owner of SIL Group, pledged last week to stand by the ex-president “until our victory” despite an ongoing government crackdown on his businesses.
Virtually all other tycoons remain loyal to Armenia’s top leaders. They have financed Kocharian’s and his allies’ election campaigns and are expected to render similar assistance to Sarkisian in the upcoming presidential election. Sukiasian has claimed that many them privately sympathize with Ter-Petrosian but are too scared to revolt against the authorities.
But one tycoon, who is believed to be close to Sarkisian, insisted on Monday he did not and will not get involved in politics. “I did very well even in 1996-1997, when Levon Ter-Petrosian was in power,” said Mikhail Baghdasarian, whose business interests range from fuel imports to civil aviation. “Incidentally, I came here [from Russia] at his initiative.”
“I do business not for Levon Ter-Petrosian or Robert Kocharian but for Armenia, for those people who work for me,” said the Russian citizen of Armenian descent.
In his speech, Ter-Petrosian disputed the widely held belief that the “oligarchs” are allowed to grossly evade taxes in return for their political and economic support for the ruling regime. He alleged that most of the taxes paid by them end up in the pockets of “jackals” running the country -- his most bitter personal attack on Sarkisian and Kocharian yet. “In fact, you have fulfilled your tax obligations but your payments have gone not to the state budget but to a totally different place,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian also sought to win over tens of thousands of Armenians owning small businesses. Many of them have until now paid only a so-called “simplified tax” and have been exempted from other, heftier duties. Citing the need to combat tax evasion, the Armenian government pushed through parliament earlier this year a legal amendment that will make it much harder for small firms to qualify for simplified tax.
Ter-Petrosian condemned the measure, which will take effect on January 1, and reiterated his claims that the Armenian economy is being increasingly monopolized by the government-linked super rich. “The majority of entrepreneurs representing the middle class, having long lost their independence, are trapped in the net of monopolist companies involved in wholesale trade,” he said.
Responding to such allegations, Kocharian has said that Ter-Petrosian has no moral right to speak about economics because he “wrecked” Armenia’s Soviet-era industry and made the nation one of the poorest in the world during the turbulent first years of its independence. Armenia’s GDP shrunk by more than half amid a sever energy crisis in 1992-1993. Kocharian has downplayed the impact of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockades on the economic collapse.
Ter-Petrosian insisted that Soviet-era manufacturing industries were too backward to adapt to the free market and went into decline in all former Communist states. He said the decline was much steeper in Armenia because of the Karabakh war, the economic blockades, turmoil in neighboring Georgia, the presence of hundreds of thousands of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan as well as devastating consequences of the 1988 earthquake. “If you put any other state in those conditions, you would see the same results,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian further declared that the fact that Armenia managed to defeat Azerbaijan against the odds while registering modest economic growth in 1994 makes his time in office one of the most glorious periods in Armenian history. “It is hard not to agree that it was a feat that has no precedent in the modern history of the Armenian people,” he said.