By Emil Danielyan
Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on Monday downplayed the significance of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s decision not to impose sanctions against Armenia, saying that the country’s international reputation has already been badly damaged over the past year.
In an interview with the Lragir.am online journal, Oskanian also appeared to distance himself from the use of lethal force against opposition protests last March and other controversial decisions taken by former President Robert Kocharian.
In a fresh resolution, the PACE last week gave the Armenian authorities at least three more months to release dozens of opposition members and supporters who it believes were arrested following the February 2008 presidential election for political motives. The assembly dropped threats to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members after last-minute negotiations with Armenian leaders.
Oskanian believes that the authorities can not present this as a victory in their standoff with the opposition. “The very fact that the debate over Armenia has been going on [in Strasbourg] for almost a year, that the issue remains unresolved, and that the PACE has adopted a third resolution in connection with that deals an extremely serious blow to Armenia’s international reputation,” he said. “By delaying the issue’s resolution for two or more months, we not only gain nothing but lose.”
“I don’t know who feels victorious or defeated as a result of the latest PACE debate, but can definitely say that as long as all suspicions that there are people in Armenia who ended up behind bars for political reasons have not been dispelled, everyone will lose, Armenia will lose,” he said.
Oskanian has repeatedly advocated the idea of a general amnesty for the several dozen supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian remaining in prison. He most recently called for such amnesty during the late December presentation of the first annual report released by his recently established think-tank, the Civilitas Foundation.
Some in Armenia were surprised by Oskanian’s public pronouncements given his ten-year service in the Kocharian administration and his reputation as the ex-president’s most trusted diplomat. Oskanian is also the one who held an emergency news conference on March 1 to warn the opposition that Kocharian will declare a state of emergency unless thousands of Ter-Petrosian protesters, who barricaded themselves in central Yerevan, disperse.
Oskanian stressed on Monday that the news conference took place before the outbreak of deadly clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. He said he agreed to speak on behalf of Kocharian because he felt that it is still possible to “avert that tragedy.”
“Furthermore, before the news conference the president agreed, at my insistence, to initiate a dialogue [with the opposition] in case of the opposition’s readiness,” added Oskanian. “Only after receiving that promise did I agree to hold the news conference.”
The Syrian-born former U.S. national, who served as foreign minister from 1998-2008, also seemingly distanced himself from other controversial episodes of Kocharian’s decade-long presidency. “As foreign minister, I often disagreed with many internal political developments, phenomena,” he said. “What is more, I often talked about that, including in public.” He did not elaborate.
Oskanian told Lragir.am that having resigned from government about a year ago, he no longer has any “limitations” to speak his mind. He also said he fells free to criticize the current Armenian leadership because he sees a “considerable difference” between the Sarkisian and Kocharian administrations. The ex-minister did not specify those differences.
Oskanian further made clear that he believes Ter-Petrosian, who had served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998, is also responsible for the flawed 2008 election and the broader lack of democracy in the country. “The 2008 presidential elections were not the first controversial elections held in Armenia,” he said. “These are not new problems, and they date back to the 1990s.”
It was an apparent reference to the reputedly fraudulent presidential election of September 1996 that earned Ter-Petrosian a second term in office. The then president ordered troops into Yerevan to quell violent opposition protests against official vote results.