By Ruzanna Stepanian
A newly formed party led by a former pro-establishment lawmaker staked a claim Monday to the status of Armenia’s most pro-Western political force, calling for the country’s exit from a Russian-dominated military pact and accession to NATO.
Meeting for their founding congress, Hovannes Hovannisian and members of his Liberal Progressive Party (AAK) deplored what they see as Armenia’s excessive political, military and economic dependence on Russia. They said that is one of the reasons why they will position themselves among political opponents of President Robert Kocharian
“It is my belief that we must begin the process of joining NATO and at the same time quitting the Collective Security Treaty,” Hovannisian told his supporters. He argued that the U.S.-led alliance is playing an increasingly large role in global security and that it is in Armenia’s interests to become part of “the new security zone.”
“We are grateful that the Russian troops are deployed along our borders and protect us against the Turks. But those troops are [financially] supported by ourselves and their presence doesn’t mean that we should give up our property in payment for a $92 million debt,” he said, referring to the 2002 Russian-Armenian deal.
Hovannisian, who headed the foreign affairs committee in the previous Armenian parliament, complained that Yerevan “looks back at Russia” when making major foreign policy decisions instead of developing more “balanced relations” with its Soviet-era master. He also claimed that the Russians are disinterested in free and fair elections in Armenia for fear of losing their leverage against its rulers.
The AAK’s foreign policy agenda, particularly its emphasis on closer ties with the United States, is highly unusual for an Armenian party. Only a handful of existing major political forces grouped around former President Levon Ter-Petrosian would subscribe to it. But like the AAK they are not represented in the country government or parliament.
The mainstream opposition has likewise criticized the controversial equities-for-debt deal with Russia, but is unlikely to advocate a radical shift in Armenia’s geopolitical priorities championed by Hovannisian.
Hovannisian said his party supports the year-long opposition efforts to oust Kocharian and hopes to see fresh presidential and parliamentary elections as early as this year. He claimed that even the pro-presidential parties making up the current coalition government are now discussing such possibility.
“There must be parliamentary and presidential elections this year,” he said. “That would be our salvation, our solution to the Karabakh conflict. We must present ourselves to the world as a democratic country.”
A former Communist, Hovannisian for years headed the Armenian delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and was considered a staunch loyalist of Kocharian until he lost his parliament seat in the May 2003 elections. The speech at the AAK congress marked his first direct attack on the head of state.