By Harry Tamrazian and Armen Dulian in Prague
President Robert Kocharian, making the first-ever visit to RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters by an Armenian leader, pledged on Friday to ensure that the February 19 presidential elections in Armenia are democratic. He also expressed regret at the Armenian opposition’s failure to nominate a single challenger against him.
“By ensuring the freedom and fairness of the elections, I do not help the opposition. I thereby help the Armenian people and the state,” Kocharian said in comments broadcast live by the RFE/RL Armenian Service. He added that a clean vote will be in tune with his efforts to “build a democratic, stable and economically powerful country.”
“I regret that that the opposition has not succeeded in nominating a common candidate. Perhaps that’s logical with all its negative and positive sides,” he said.
Kocharian had earlier argued that a two-horse race would not require a run-off vote and would spare Armenia additional political tensions and economic resources. Some local observers saw the statement as a sign that the 48-year-old leader wants to win an outright majority in the first round of voting.
His opponents claim that the authorities were thus ordered to ensure his victory at any cost. Most of them believe that, on the contrary, a single opposition candidate would make it more difficult for Kocharian to win a second term in office.
Kocharian arrived in the Czech capital on Thursday to attend a crucial NATO summit and discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh problem with Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev. Speaking to RFE/RL, Kocharian again made it clear that no peace deal should be expected before the 2003 presidential elections due in both rival countries. But he stressed that continued Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue is vital for the future of the peace process.
“We must try to use this period [before the elections] to reach agreements on contentious issues,” he said.
Addressing the expanded summit of NATO earlier in the day, Kocharian explicitly accused Baku of backtracking on far-reaching peace agreements that were reportedly reached by the two presidents in Paris and Key West last year. “Had Azerbaijan accepted the proposed settlement, we wood have already been halfway through the implementation of the peace agreement,” he said.
In his speech, Kocharian reaffirmed Yerevan’s commitment to deepening ties with the Western alliance and its support for the U.S.-led war on terror. “The South Caucasus, as the boundary of the European continent, should be considered an indivisible part of European security,” he said, adding that Armenia welcomes improving relations between NATO and its ally Russia.
“The improvement of NATO-Russia relations can serve to further strengthen Euro-Atlantic security and help prevent the creation of new dividing lines. For us, it is also important in the light of our advanced military cooperation with Russia and the policy of complementarity that we have been consistently implementing.”
While in Prague, Kocharian also held separate meetings with Presidents Jacques Chirac of France and Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia. His spokesman, Vahe Gabrielian, said the Armenian and French leaders discussed bilateral relations and the Karabakh conflict. “The president is satisfied with the course of the meeting,” Gabrielian said.
Speaking at a press conferences at the RFE/RL headquarters, Kocharian noted that Armenia does not object to Georgia’s bid to join NATO, which was officially announced by Shevardnadze during the summit.
(RFE/RL photo: Kocharian with RFE/RL President Tom Dine)