By Emil Danielyan
Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia's reclusive former president, is unlikely to stand in next February's presidential elections unless he builds a broad opposition coalition around his candidacy, according to some of his close associates. Ter-Petrosian, they say, is now ascertaining whether he is popular enough to mount a serious challenge to Robert Kocharian, the incumbent president who forced him into resignation more than four years ago.
"I think that he will run for president if he feels that he enjoys the support of a broad range of political forces," a former senior government official, who is a member of the ex-president's inner circle, told RFE/RL this week. "He believes that he should join the race only if he has very good chances of success."
Stepan Grigorian, a senior member of the Armat faction of Ter-Petrosian's Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) agreed, saying: "If he makes such a decision, he will definitely not rely on only one political force.”
It was HHSh leaders that fueled speculation about Ter-Petrosian's imminent political comeback two months ago amid lingering uncertainty over the pool of opposition candidates capable of scuttling Kocharian's reelection plans. One of them, former national security minister David Shahnazarian, told reporters late last month that he believes Ter-Petrosian will be a presidential candidate.
But other politicians familiar with the 57-year-old former president's thinking are more cautious in their predictions.
"No political decision has yet been taken on his participation in the elections," said Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrosian's former press secretary who remains one of his closest advisers. "In my opinion, Ter-Petrosian is not the kind of person who would try to return to power with uncertain prospects."
The former president, Zurabian explained, wants to be sure that there is a "public demand" for his return to active politics. "I think that the society, or at least a certain part of it, has started to reconsider those political solutions which Ter-Petrosian had proposed. But it is difficult to say just how far this process will go."
This incertitude reflects the continuing lack of confidence among Armenia's former leadership in its ability to win back the hearts and minds of the people. Ter-Petrosian was unpopular when he quit office in February 1998, still reeling from his highly controversial reelection in September 1996. The economic collapse of the early 1990s, accompanied by a surge in government corruption, was enough to discredit his regime. Even the military victory over Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict did little to soften the public disillusionment which was used by Kocharian in his rise to power.
Whether the past four and a half years have restored public sympathy for independent Armenia's first president is not clear. Ter-Petrosian has rarely appeared in public and consistently avoided contacts with the media.
Comments made by his top loyalists indicate that he now hopes to form a large alliance comprising the country's leading opposition groups. Many of them were bitterly opposed to Ter-Petrosian when he was in power. Winning their support will not be an easy task.
The former official close to Ter-Petrosian admitted that the latter will have great difficulty rallying the Armenian opposition around his candidacy. "I think it would be better for him to see someone else take on that role," he said. He at the same time claimed that opposition heavyweights such as Hanrapetutyun, the People's Party and even Artashes Geghamian's National Accord are potential Ter-Petrosian backers. The ex-president's entourage also hopes to win over the Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans and part of the disgruntled state bureaucracy and security apparatus.
While being uncertain about their chances of success, Ter-Petrosian allies are convinced that their leader's return to power is a window of opportunity for Armenia to ensure its economic development and long-term security. They will try to capitalize on the fact that the lot of ordinary Armenians has hardly improved under Kocharian's rule. Nor has endemic corruption declined. On the contrary, the personal wealth of many representatives of the "former regime" now pales in comparison with that of the current rulers. The latter control more lucrative sectors of the economy than their predecessors did.
The former Armenian leadership continues to emphasize its belief that rapid economic development is impossible without a resolution of the Karabakh conflict. A belief which cost Ter-Petrosian the presidency after his key ministers led by Kocharian revolted against the idea.
The infighting centered on a Karabakh peace plan proposed by international mediators in September 1997. The plan, accepted by Ter-Petrosian and Azerbaijan, called for a "phased" settlement of the conflict which would postpone an agreement on Karabakh's status, the main stumbling block. That was to be preceded by the return of most Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh and the lifting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia.
Kocharian and the then defense minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, found the plan too risky. They instead insisted on a "package" agreement that would settle all contentious issues in a single peace accord. More importantly, both men claimed that the Karabakh conflict is not the main obstacle to Armenia's economic recovery.
The former ruling HHSh and his allies believe that the past four years have proved Ter-Petrosian right. In Zurabian's words, the phased peace agreement remains the most realistic one as the Armenian and Azerbaijani positions on Karabakh's status are presently irreconcilable. Zurabian, expressing the dominant view in the Ter-Petrosian camp, claimed that the Kocharian administration is simply not interested in peace with Azerbaijan. The Armenian president, he said, relies on an oligarchy of "extreme nationalist parties," the hardline military elite and government-connected businessmen
oriented towards the domestic market. All of them have much to lose from the conflict's resolution and the resulting opening of borders, according to Zurabian.
Ter-Petrosian's views on Karabakh may be the reason why Western powers are
showing interest in his political comeback. Over the past two months Ter-Petrosian has held two separate meetings with the ambassadors of European Union member countries and the United States. Sources have told RFE/RL that the diplomats asked whether he will run for president but were not given explicit answers.
Whether the West wants Ter-Petrosian's return to power is by no means certain. After all, Kocharian has not rejected any of its peace proposals since taking office. Still, Western powers may feel that Ter-Petrosian would make it easier for them to find a mutually acceptable solution. Some pro-Kocharian media have already renewed their allegations that he is intent on "selling out" Karabakh.
The ex-president's allies, meanwhile, are playing down the significance of possible external assistance to Ter-Petrosian, saying that he only needs the support of his people.
Armat's Grigorian said Ter-Petrosian's comeback would not necessarily result in his participation in the presidential elections. He said Ter-Petrosian can also play a crucial role in consolidating a dozen center-right parties supporting him. Most of them are splinter groups that had split from the HHSh in the past. Their leaders have for months negotiated on the possibility of joining forces ahead of the parliamentary elections due in May 2003. Politicians involved in the talks say that little progress has been made so far.