By Astghik Bedevian
Opposition candidate Vazgen Manukian angrily rejected calls to bow out of the presidential race in favor of his longtime rival, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, during a rare campaign trip outside Yerevan on Wednesday.
Campaigning in the central Aragatsotn region, Manukian was repeatedly asked by voters unhappy with the government why he has not joined other opposition leaders in supporting Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s main challenger. The leader of the National Democratic Union (AZhM), a once influential opposition party, was visibly annoyed by such questions.
“Do you really not understand whom to elect?” he told a small crowd in the town of Talin. “You have seen each [of the presidential candidates] for the past 20 years. Don’t we know who sold out, who swindled you, who was broken up. Should we start explaining that again?”
“If you can’t unite, what can the people do?” one pro-opposition woman said, interrupting him. “You only discredit each other, saying everything about each other. This is wrong. These poor people don’t deserve that.”
“There are two candidates whom I will never support,” responded Manukian. “One is Serzh Sarkisian, the other is Levon Ter-Petrosian. We can join forces with everyone else.”
Manukian said a government headed by Ter-Petrosian would “the same as the existing one” and urged locals to remember the ex-president’s controversial track record in power. “Have you forgotten everything?” he asked. “I don’t understand. You may have forgotten, but I haven’t.
“I don’t want an Armenia of Serzh Sarkisian. I don’t want an Armenia of Levon Ter-Petrosian. We can build a much better Armenia. Why don’t we follow that path?”
An elderly man objected that Ter-Petrosian’s endorsement by other prominent oppositionists would increase chances of regime change in the country. “Don’t vote for me,” angrily retorted Manukian. “Vote for them and you’ll get the Armenia you want.”
“I’m sorry, my dear Vazgen, but you are wrong,” said the man.
Manukian similarly seethed with rage in the nearby large village of Parpi when he was asked the same question by the pro-Ter-Petrosian head of the local chapter of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans. The AZhM leader countered that Yerkrapah and its late leader, Vazgen Sarkisian, played a decisive role in forcing Ter-Petrosian to resign in 1998 over his conciliatory views on the Karabakh conflict’s resolution.
“Have you changed your view on Karabakh? No,” he told the war veteran. “Has [Ter-Petrosian] changed his view? No, he has made that clear.”
“You silently complied with whatever Vazgen Sarkisian said,” continued Manukian. “He said ‘topple Levon’ and you toppled him. Now Vazgen Sarkisian’s brother, Levon, Manvel [Grigorian] are saying ‘topple them and bring back Levon.’ If you do that, what kind of Yerkrapahs (country defenders) will you be? You will not defend the country? You will defend yourself.”
The bitter remarks undescore the long-running feud between Manukian and Ter-Petrosian. The two former scholars became the top leaders of the 1988 movement for Armenia’s unification with Karabakh before jointly heading the country’s first post-Communist government in 1990. Manukian subsequently quit the government and challenged the incumbent Ter-Petrosian in the hotly disputed presidential election of 1996.
Ter-Petrosian sent troops to the streets of Yerevan at the time to quell violent opposition protests against the official vote results which showed him narrowly defeating Manukian. The latter still claims to be the rightful winner of the vote and holds the ex-president responsible for Armenia’s post-Soviet culture of election fraud.
Speaking to RFE/RL in Talin, Manukian criticized another prominent opposition leader, Raffi Hovannisian, for throwing his weight behind Ter-Petrosian. “I don’t think that such alliances set a good example for future generations in the political spectrum,” he said, arguing that Ter-Petrosian and Hovannisian have “huge differences” on Karabakh and other major issues.