By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian on Friday expressed readiness to engage in dialogue with Armenia’s leadership and said he will steer clear of steps that could cause further political “upheavals” in the country.
In his first public speech since the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between his supporters and security forces, Ter-Petrosian also accused Western powers and organizations of betraying the cause of Armenia’s democratization with their largely positive assessment of last February’s “disgraceful” presidential election.
“While continuing the principled and determined struggle against the anti-popular regime, we must do everything to avoid internal political upheavals and developments threatening the country’s stability,” he said in a 90-minute speech at a conference of some two dozen opposition groups that supported his presidential bid.
Ter-Petrosian cited Azerbaijan’s growing threats to win bank Nagorno-Karabakh by force as the main reason why he thinks his “popular movement” should now exercise greater caution. “We must primarily take into account the existing mood in Azerbaijan aimed at benefiting from such a situation,” he explained. “Azerbaijan must realize that regardless of the political situation in our country, it would meet with a united resistance of the Armenian people in the event of unleashing a military aggression against Karabakh.”
The March 1 clashes, which left at least ten people dead, were a major theme of the speech repeatedly interrupted by rapturous applause from several hundreds opposition activists who packed a government conference hall in Yerevan. Unable to get in, hundreds of other oppositionists listened to it from monitors placed in the lobby.
Ter-Petrosian brushed aside government claims that the clashes were part of his plot to use the February 19 election for returning to power. He said former President Robert Kocharian was primarily responsible for the bloody end of his campaign of non-stop demonstrations against the official vote results that gave victory to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. He was less categorical about Sarkisian’s role in the “slaughter.”
“Robert Kocharian was the only official who could give an order to use force against and shoot at peaceful demonstrators,” said Ter-Petrosian. “Although he is formally unconnected with the issuance of the order, Serzh Sarkisian, was obliged, as the de facto president-elect, to prevent Robert Kocharian from taking that extreme step.
“In any case, the extent of his responsibility depends on the position that he will take in ensuring an impartial investigation into the March 1 crime. Sarkisian can not have a more convenient and effective way to prove his innocence than to agree to an independent international investigation into the circumstances of that crime. Or else, even in a thousand years from now he would be deemed just as guilty of the March 1 bloodshed as Robert Kocharian.”
Ter-Petrosian claimed that the bloodshed was also made possible by Western observers’ preliminary conclusion that the Armenian presidential ballot was held “mostly in accordance” with democratic standards. The verdict, initially echoed by Western powers, was a major boost to the legitimacy of Sarkisian’s election win, even if the United States subsequently distanced itself from the mostly European observers’ findings, citing serious irregularities exposed by vote recounts.
“With one careless sentence, the observer mission of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights fully and unconditionally legitimized the disgraceful elections held in Armenia,” charged Ter-Petrosian. “It thereby gave these authorities, which seized power by force, the grounds to resort to new falsifications, new repressions and even bloodshed.”
The opposition leader went on to fault the European Union and the Council of Europe for failing to explicitly condemn the use of lethal force against supporters and to back up their demands for an end to the government crackdown on the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition with punitive actions. He suggested that the West is more interested in clinching Armenian concessions on Karabakh than promoting the country’s democratization.
Ter-Petrosian at the same time urged the U.S. to drop its threats to freeze $236 million in promised economic assistance to Armenia unless the government reverses the crackdown. “While supporting political sanctions against the ruling regime, we are deeply concerned about statements regarding planned economic sanctions against Armenia because they would hurt not the authorities but our people,” he said.
Both the EU and the Council of Europe have called for an independent inquiry into the March 1 unrest as well as the release of all Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested for political motives and the lifting of severe government restrictions on freedom of assembly. In an April 17 resolution, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) warned that failure to promptly take these measures would call into question Yerevan’s full membership in the organization. It also urged Ter-Petrosian to accept a Constitutional Court ruling that upheld the official vote results.
Ter-Petrosian stated that he is ready to negotiate with the authorities if they comply with the resolution.” “While not accepting the legitimacy of a regime that seized power with such crude methods, we are ready to take into account the fact of its being a real political factor and to start political dialogue with it,” he said. “But we regard that dialogue not as a means for bringing one of the parties down on its knees but as an opportunity to implement real reforms in the country and to create a normal field for political activity.”
The only way to achieve that, in his view, is to hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. The idea is bound to be rejected by President Sarkisian and his leading political allies represented in the newly reshuffled governing coalition.
Ter-Petrosian told his ardent supporters that his movement, hamstrung by the mass arrests of its senior figures, will act “only within the framework of law” in any case. He said it should have a more clearly defined organizational structure and even suggested the opposition grouping be named the Armenian National Congress. He said it might eventually transform itself into a single political party.
“Regardless of the organizational transformation and the name, it is obvious that thanks to the broad public support the popular movement will play a permanent and decisive role in all future political processes in Armenia,” added Ter-Petrosian. “Including by participating in elections at all levels with joint candidates or common lists.”