By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian made public his election campaign manifesto on Monday, pledging to turn Armenia into a “normal” state where governments are formed as a result of free elections and respect laws, human rights and free enterprise.
The 16-page document also reiterates his bitter critique of the country’s current leadership. It claims that Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s victory in next month’s presidential election would be “tantamount to a national disaster.”
The manifesto, titled “Pre-Election Program or Serene Musings,” was unveiled just over a week after the formation of Ter-Petrosian’s national campaign headquarters to be managed by former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian. Its coordinating council, which comprises representatives of some of the opposition parties allied to Ter-Petrosian, held its first meeting and appointed the heads of its territorial branches in Yerevan on December 29.
It was decided that the Ter-Petrosian campaign in Yerevan will be run by Khachatur Sukiasian, a wealthy parliamentarian who has been facing a government crackdown on his businesses ever since backing the ex-president’s political comeback last September. Sukiasian will oversee the work of Ter-Petrosian campaign offices in each of the city’s ten administrative districts. Among the heads of those offices are former Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian and Pargev Ohanian, a prominent judge who was controversially dismissed by President Robert Kocharian last fall.
Ter-Petrosian’s pre-election discourse so far has focused on the analysis of controversial episodes from his 1991-1998 presidency as well as the current Armenian government’s track record. His already known evaluations, coupled with a retrospective look at the last few decades of Armenian history, make up a large part of the published manifesto. The ex-president, who will turn 63 on Wednesday, again denounces the Kocharian administration as a corrupt and criminal regime that tolerates no dissent and is motivated by self-enrichment at the expense of a downtrodden population.
The document also lays out his vision for Armenia’s future. It says that, if elected, Ter-Petrosian will strive for the “dismantling of the existing kpletrocratic system” and the establishment of “full-fledged democracy” anchored in free elections, protection of human rights and judicial independence. Also, law-enforcement bodies and the military would no longer be used as tools for government repression.
These pledges will ring hollow to Ter-Petrosian’s longtime critics who see few fundamental differences between Armenia’s current and former rulers. They point, among other things, to the Ter-Petrosian government’s failure to hold a single election recognized as free and fair by the international community.
Ter-Petrosian’s unveiled socioeconomic agenda is based on three key principles of market-based economics which he believes are absent in Armenia: a level playing field for all businesspeople, fair economic competition, and absolute protection of private property. While pledging to retrieve what he says are huge amounts of money “stolen from the people” by wealthy government-connected businessmen, Ter-Petrosian says that he would not seek a massive “re-distribution of property” once in power.
Ter-Petrosian further commits himself to launching a crackdown on widespread tax evasion which he says should primarily target large corporate taxpayers that are believed to grossly underreport their earnings thanks to government patronage. “According to foreign experts, only 22 percent of the state budget’s tax revenues is currently paid by large entrepreneurs, whereas [that proportion] should have stood at 75 percent” reads his campaign platform.
In that regard, the document reaffirms Ter-Petrosian’s pledge to help abolish a government-drafted law, effective from January 1, that will make it much harder for small Armenian firms to qualify for so-called “simplified tax.” Payment of that tax has exempted them from other, heftier duties.
According to Ter-Petrosian, these and other economic measures contained in his platform would double Armenia’s Gross Domestic Product and triple its state budget in the next five years. “Needless to say that in the event of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the lifting of the economic blockades [of Armenia,] and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, much more impressive results could be expected,” reads the platform.
Responding to Ter-Petrosian’s grave allegations, Kocharian and Sarkisian have been particularly scathing about his handling of the first years of Armenia’s painful transition to the free market. The Armenian economy shrunk by half in 1992-1993 following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of wars in Karabakh and elsewhere in the South Caucasus. Kocharian has charged that the Ter-Petrosian administration was primarily responsible for turning Armenia into “one of the poorest countries” of the world.
In his manifesto, Ter-Petrosian stands by his belief that the collapse of the Soviet economy was inevitable and that it was more drastic in Armenia than in other former Soviet republics because of the Karabakh war, the crippling blockades imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey as well as turmoil in Georgia. But he admits that many Armenians do not and will not accept this explanation. “When a person is worse off today than he was yesterday, no logical explanation can satisfy him,” he says.
The document is far less specific on foreign policy matters, with Ter-Petrosian saying only that he would strengthen Armenia’s relations with Russia, Georgia and Iran and promising “constructive efforts” to normalize ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
On the Karabakh conflict, the manifesto says Ter-Petrosian would show the “political will” to achieve a compromise peace deal with Azerbaijan that would enable the Karabakh Armenians to exercise their “right to self-determination.” It does not specify Ter-Petrosian’s position on international mediators’ existing peace proposals that are similar to a Karabakh settlement which he was ready to accept before his resignation in 1998.