By Ruzanna Stepanian
Levon Ter-Petrosian and top leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) agreed to make their long-running bitter feud more “civilized” during a sensational weekend meeting initiated by Armenia’s former president.
The meeting, held at the Dashnaktsutyun headquarters in Yerevan on Saturday, came as a further indication that Ter-Petrosian is leaning towards contesting the approaching presidential election. It was the first time that he set foot in the offices of a party which he had accused of terrorist activity and banned during his rule.
Ter-Petrosian was accompanied by Aleksandr Arzumanian, a former foreign minister and his longtime close associate. They were received by Hrant Markarian, the top member of Dashnaktsutyun’s worldwide governing Bureau, and Armen Rustamian, the nominal head of the nationalist party’s organization in Armenia.
Participants of the talks, which lasted for less than an hour, told RFE/RL that they focused on the political situation in Armenia and, in particular, the unfolding preparations for next year’s crucial presidential election.
“We agreed, among other things, to stay within the bounds of a political, ideological struggle and not to descend to a lower level,” said Markarian. They also stressed the need to create an “atmosphere of tolerance and solidarity in the country,” he said.
“It is important for the two parties that the pre-election debate be civilized and political in nature,” said Arzumanian. In his words, the meeting was part of Ter-Petrosian’s ongoing pre-election consultations with “important political forces.”
The very fact of such an encounter is quite extraordinary given the extent of mutual animosity which Dashnaktsutyun and Armenia’s first-Communist government headed by Ter-Petrosian developed even before the Soviet collapse. The two sides strongly disagreed on Armenia’s geopolitical priorities, with Dashnaktsutyun insisting on continued reliance on Russia and a firm Armenian stand on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and relations with Turkey. The Ter-Petrosian administration, by contrast, embraced a more pro-Western agenda and did not regard recognition of the 1915 genocide as a precondition for normalizing Turkish-Armenian ties.
Their feud culminated in Ter-Petrosian’s decision in December 1994 to ban Dashnaktsutyun on the grounds that it violated Armenia’s law on political parties and allegedly harbored a death squad. Markarian and Rustamian were among dozens of party activities arrested and imprisoned in 1994 and 1995 on murder and coup charges denied by the nationalist party as politically motivated. Most of them were set free shortly after Ter-Petrosian resigned and was replaced by Robert Kocharian in early 1998.
“We deliberately avoided talking about the past because I think all of us should worry more about the future of our country and our people,” said Markarian.
“Today is not the time to talk about that,” Spartak Seyranian, a Dashnaktsutyun parliamentarian, agreed on Monday. “But I have a very good memory and think that nobody in our organization suffers from a loss of memory.”
“We are not forgetting or departing from our ideological differences, but will try to concentrate our debate during the entire electoral process exclusively on ideas, programs and proposals,” he explained.
Despite being part of Armenia’s governing coalition, Dashnaktsutyun has pointedly refused to help Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian become Armenia’s next president and has decided to field its own presidential candidate instead. The party has repeatedly deplored Sarkisian’s and Kocharian’s reliance on wealthy government-connected individuals, many of them with dubious reputations. While reaffirming their highly negative attitude towards Ter-Petrosian, its leaders say they would welcome his participation in the presidential election as it would reduce the role of what they call “apolitical elements” in the country’s political life.
“I think he should run so that the political landscape has a more natural structure and every person, every force has its right place there,” Markarian told RFE/RL. He said Ter-Petrosian told the Dashnaktsutyun leaders that “he is seriously intent no nominating his candidacy but has not yet made a final decision.”
Markarian also said Ter-Petrosian’s possible presidential run would not lose the Dashnaktsutyun candidate any votes, arguing that the two political camps appeal to voters with diametrically opposite views on key issues facing Armenia. “His supporters won’t vote for us and our supporters won’t vote for him,” he said.
Arzumanian, meanwhile, insisted that Ter-Petrosian’s return to active politics is not a forgone conclusion. “He is continuing to examine the political field and will make a decision after ending his consultations and weighing up the political situation,” he said.