By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian on Friday referred to himself and his loyalists as the only “real” opposition to Armenia’s current leadership and said he is confident about beating Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in next month’s presidential election.
At his first news conferences in more than a decade, Ter-Petrosian said he will urge supporters to take to the streets of Yerevan if the vote is falsified by the authorities. He also spoke favorably about international mediators’ existing plan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, saying that it is essentially identical with a peace deal he had advocated while in power.
“I’m not going to comment on Serzh Sarkisian’s scenarios,” Ter-Petrosian said when asked about upbeat statements made by the government camp. “I have my scenario and I will realize it.
“I am convinced that that scenario is working. And while others say ‘We will win,’ I say ‘I have already won.’”
Sarkisian is widely regarded as the election favorite not least because of his and his Republican Party’s tight grip on many government bodies and vast financial resources. The prime minister also enjoys the backing of virtually all of Armenia’s major TV stations that have fiercely attacked Ter-Petrosian in recent months. Some senior Republicans predicted this week that Sarkisian will cruise to a landslide victory already in the first round of voting slated for February 19.
Ter-Petrosian played down, however, Sarkisian’s government levers and formidable propaganda machine, claiming that senior government and law-enforcement officials will start defying government orders “in 10-20 days.” He said he is also succeeding in getting his anti-government message across because he and parties supporting him are “the only real force opposed to the authorities.”
“I have already spoken to half a million people,” he said. “The brochures and DVDs of my speeches have already reached them. No other candidate has such audience. Even the candidate of power who supposedly talks to the people through 15 TV stations. They don’t watch and listen to him.”
For their part, the Armenian authorities dismiss Ter-Petrosian’s election chances, citing opinion polls which show that he is not even the most popular of the opposition presidential candidates. According to recent U.S.-surveys conducted by the government-connected Armenian Sociological Association (ASA), popular support for the ex-president slipped from 3 percent to 2 percent just as he held the biggest opposition rallies in Yerevan in years last fall. The Ter-Petrosian camp considers the polling data fraudulent.
Ter-Petrosian was repeatedly asked by journalists what he will do if he concludes that the presidential ballot has been rigged in Sarkisian’s favor. “Being conscious of my rights, being well aware of our constitution and laws and international legislation, I would take all steps stemming from that legislation: demonstrations, marches, pickets, court actions,” he replied. “This is going to be my path.”
Still, it remained unclear if Ter-Petrosian is ready to stage the kind of post-election street protests that brought down governments in neighboring Georgia and other former Soviet republics in recent years. He stressed only that he will steer clear of any violent actions.
The 63-year-old former scholar also made it clear that Western monitors’ opinion about the Armenian government’s conduct of the upcoming election will not serve as the “supreme judgment” to himself and his political allies. He pointed to their largely positive assessment of Armenia’s May 2007 parliamentary elections that contrasted with opposition allegations of blatant fraud.
“I may have my opinion, they may have their opinion,” said Ter-Petrosian. “As you know, there were wonderful opinions about last year’s parliamentary elections. Go out to the streets and ask people what they think of those opinions.”
“I don’t care what international bodies will say,” he added. “We have to solve our problems with our laws and within the limits, no matter how narrow, of our freedoms.”
Downplaying the impact of foreign powers on the Armenian presidential race, Ter-Petrosian insisted that he is not seeking any external support for his bid to return to power. “I will not appeal to Russia, America, Europe or anyone else,” he said. “I don’t need external support. I don’t need power granted to me from abroad.”
Ter-Petrosian also spoke about unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the main theme of his previous news conference held in September 1997 less than five months before he resigned under pressure from his key cabinet members, including then Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and Interior Minister Serzh Sarkisian. He indicated that, if elected president, he will go along with international mediators’ existing peace proposals which call for a gradual settlement of the Karabakh dispute.
“The logic, if not the formal agreement or that proposal, of the current state of the negotiation process can be the basis [for an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal,]” said Ter-Petrosian. He reiterated his view that the peace plan formally put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group in November is “in essence” the same as the one which he advocated in 1997-1998 and which Kocharian and Sarkisian rejected as “defeatist.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian disputed this assertion earlier this week. Oskanian said that unlike 1997 plan, the latest Minsk Group proposals uphold the Karabakh Armenians’ “right to self-determination” by stipulating that Karabakh’s population will itself decide the disputed territory’s status in a future referendum.
Ter-Petrosian countered that the Minsk Group’s French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs have specified no time frames for the holding of that referendum and other practical modalities of the vote. He also dismissed Oskanian as a flip-flopper who had been “one of the main architects” of his Karabakh policy in 1997 and defended it at the fateful January 1998 meeting of Armenia’s National Security Council. Ter-Petrosian went on national television to announce his resignation less than a month after that meeting.
Ter-Petrosian is the only presidential candidate who has released his election manifesto so far. The 16-page document reiterates his bitter critique of the Kocharian administration and pledges to turn Armenia into a “normal” democratic state based on the rule of law.
Critics say Ter-Petrosian already failed to create such a state when he was in power from 1991-1998. In particular, they single out his handling of the September 1996 presidential election which was described as deeply flawed by international observers and rejected as fraudulent by the opposition.
Ter-Petrosian remained unrepentant on this and other controversial episodes of his presidency. He insisted that he won 1996 vote fair and square and that Vazgen Manukian, his main challenger who is also standing in the February 19 election, failed to come up with compelling evidence of vote rigging at the time.
Ter-Petrosian’s sole major regret appears to be his decision to promote Sarkisian and Kocharian, the two wartime leaders of Karabakh, to high-level government positions in Yerevan in the 1990s. “If I had not invited them to Armenia, they would not have been sitting on our heads today,” he said.