By Karine Kalantarian
After months of deliberations, Raffi Hovannisian, the U.S.-born former foreign minister of Armenia, has decided to contest the February 19 presidential elections, joining the list of major opposition candidates. Sources said on Monday that the popular politician will make an official statement to that effect in the coming days.
Hovannisian was formally nominated for the Armenian presidency on Saturday by a group of 152 supporters acting with his consent. They will file for his registration with the Central Election Commission on Tuesday. The registration process promises to be a tough challenge for the former California-based lawyer given the lingering controversy surrounding his eligibility to run for president.
Under Armenian law, only those Armenian citizens who have "permanently" resided in the country for the ten previous years can be registered as presidential candidates. Hovannisian was granted Armenian citizenship only last year, several months after surrendering his U.S. passport. He argues that he is eligible to run for president because his citizenship application was delayed for many years "in violation of the law."
"I am as eligible to take part in all electoral processes as the president of the republic and his most radical opponent," Hovannisian had told RFE/RL in an interview last month.
Political analysts believe that the CEC’s possible refusal to register Hovannisian would rekindle debate on President Robert Kocharian’s own eligibility. A former president of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Kocharian moved to Armenia in 1997 after being appointed its prime minister. Many of his opponents still claim that his participation in the 1998 elections was therefore illegal.
Hovannisian supported Kocharian's rise to power in 1998 but has since grown very critical of the current Armenian leadership and increasingly cooperates with leading opposition parties. But it is not clear whether he will seek their endorsement or is ready to withdraw from the campaign in support of another opposition candidate. Hovannisian could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Some individuals familiar with him claim that he may be backed by the opposition Hanrapetutyun and People’s parties. Hanrapetutyun leader Aram Sarkisian said in September that he and the former foreign minister “agree on almost all key issues” and that their cooperation will have a "serious development."