By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The pre-election war of words between Armenia’s current and former leaders intensified over the weekend as Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian pledged to hold former President Levon Ter-Petrosian accountable for what he called slanderous statements made by his most radical opposition challenger.
For his part, President Robert Kocharian renewed his allegations that Ter-Petrosian is keen to “surrender” Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and turn Armenia into Turkey’s satellite.
Ter-Petrosian campaign, meanwhile, staged another show of force on Monday, leading dozens of cars carrying his loyalists on a boisterous ride through the streets of Yerevan. Among the buildings they drove past, honking their horns and waving flags, were Kocharian’s and Sarkisian’s official residences.
“I assure you that after the elections we will expose those persons who slander and those persons must be held answerable,” Sarkisian said during a campaign meeting with residents of central Yerevan on Saturday.
“That does not mean that we must round up the slanderers and take them to Nubarashen [prison in Yerevan.] But I think that we must make sure that the election atmosphere is good, after which we will sort out the foul-mouthed Satans,” he added in a clear reference to Ter-Petrosian. He did not specify what concrete action he plans to take against the increasingly outspoken ex-president.
Kocharian made it clear in separate remarks broadcast by Armenian television that Ter-Petrosian and his top allies will not be “persecuted” for their harsh personal attacks on Armenia’s two top leaders. “I think the election results will cause the [former ruling] HHSh to experience deep disappointment,” he said. “But we do not aim to persecute anyone after the elections. Especially [Ter-Petrosian] and his friends.”
Campaigning in small towns and villages in central Armenia last week, Ter-Petrosian implicitly accused Kocharian and Sarkisian of masterminding the 1999 killings in the Armenian parliament. He was particularly scathing about Sarkisian, describing the prime minister as a chronic gambler who would not hesitate to “pawn” his country in foreign casinos.
Kocharian scoffed at these allegations as he spoke to journalists in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor on Saturday. “You know, when such statements are made by a person who is not respected and feared at this point, they create a pathetic situation,” he said.
Kocharian also pounced on Ter-Petrosian’s campaign pledge to significantly cut back Armenia’s Armed Forces in the event of a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict. He claimed that his predecessor would be ready to go as far as to disband the army altogether if he were to win the February 19 presidential election. “If he surrenders Karabakh, starts getting chummy with Azerbaijan or drops the demand for genocide recognition and makes Armenia Turkey’s younger brother, then what is the army’s use?” said the outgoing president.
The Armenian military numbers an estimated 60,000 servicemen and has long been the single largest recipient of government funds. The Armenian government’s defense spending is projected to grow by 25 percent to 125 billion drams ($408 million) this year, compared with 103.7 billion drams allocated to education and 54.5 billion drams set aside for healthcare. Ter-Petrosian has said that Armenia will need no more than 15,000 troops serving on a contractual basis after it makes peace with Azerbaijan.
Ter-Petrosian did not respond to Sarkisian’s and Kocharian’s statements on Monday as he rallied hundreds of supporters in Yerevan’s northern Avan district after spending more than an hour driving through the city in his massive motorcade. “This is just an attempt at auto ride,” he said in a speech. “The main auto ride, which will rock not only the city but the entire republic, will take place on February 20.”