By Hrach Melkumian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian showed more signs of returning to active politics on Thursday, attending a conference of his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party that renewed its calls for a pro-Western shift in Armenia’s foreign policy orientation.
It was Ter-Petrosian’s first public appearance since his November 25 conversation with several journalists, the first in more than five years. The ex-president said Armenia has paid dearly for failing to embrace his softer line on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1997.
Ter-Petrosian refused to talk to reporters this time around. However, his longtime spokesman Levon Zurabian confirmed that he is gradually emerging from a six-year political oblivion. “Nothing happens out of the blue,” Zurabian told RFE/RL.
Zurabian said the former ruling party should now strive to launch a “popular movement of liberal forces” opposed to President Robert Kocharian -- a theme echoed by HHSh leaders addressing the party faithful.
“I think that the HHSh … must enter active politics,” said its deputy chairman, Aram Manukian. Kocharian must “cede the post [of president] to its real master,” he added.
The HHSh chairman, Ararat Zurabian, went farther, laying out a vision for Armenian foreign policy different from the Kocharian administration’s. “We believe that we must be part of only one military alliance, NATO,” he said.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Ararat Zurabian did not deny that the party unofficially led by Ter-Petrosian hopes that the staunchly pro-Western stance will earn it support from the United States and Europe. “Such support has already been given to [opposition forces in] Georgia and Ukraine,” he said. “We think that if there is a similar situation in Armenia, Armenian political forces will also get it.”
As if to show that such expectations are not unfounded, France’s ambassador in Yerevan, Henry Cuny, also attended the HHSh gathering, chatting with Ter-Petrosian on the sidelines. The latter is fluent in French. Western ambassadors rarely attend party congresses in Armenia.
Ter-Petrosian’s allies will have to restore unity amongst themselves before they can again become a political force to be reckoned with. The HHSh congress showed that they remain divided, with several veteran party figures led by former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian boycotting it. Their Armat faction continues to operate separately. Ter-Petrosian was seen by an RFE/RL reporter entering the Armat office in Yerevan later in the day.
Ter-Petrosian, who will turn 60 next month, was believed until now to be unpopular, with many Armenian remembering his eight-year rule for severe power shortages, a slump in living standards and an upsurge in government corruption. At least, the staff of a canteen at the conference hall where the HHSh congress was taking place did not seem in awe of the ex-president as he sat down there with friends during a coffee break.
“Does your president want one coffee?” a waitress at the counter asked a Ter-Petrosian aide. “It costs 150 drams.”
“He is not just ours. He is everyone’s president,” he replied.
“Is he?” she hit back.