By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s long-standing political rivals appear to have resolved their personal differences stemming from years of political rivalry in the early 1990s after their rare meeting on Monday.
But Vazgen Manukian says he and ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosian are still divided by their political views.
The two leaders of the 1988 movement for Armenia’s unification with Nagorno-Karabakh jointly headed the country’s first post-Communist government before Manukian fell out with Ter-Petrosian over policy issues to step down as Armenia’s defense minister in 1993.
Their political standoff aggravated after the tightly contested presidential election in 1996 in the wake of which Ter-Petrosian sent tanks to the streets of Yerevan to quell opposition protests against the official vote outcome which showed him narrowly defeating Manukian, the then main opposition candidate. The conduct of the disputed election was then criticized as deeply flawed by Western observers and Manukian still claims to be the rightful winner of the vote.
“There was a personal barrier in our relations. This barrier disappears when you sit down at the table, but political positions do not change,” Manukian, who leads the opposition National-Democratic Union (AZhM), told RFE/RL on Tuesday. “After that meeting Ter-Petrosian still remains committed to his political views and I remain committed to mine.”
However, Manukian said that one of the results of the meeting was that they agreed to cooperate in the future, if necessary, in such matters as sharing information and opinions as “it will be easier to do that having restored personal relations.”
Manukian, who does not conceal his presidential ambitions and intentions to run for president in next year’s election, believes that as Armenia’s first president Ter-Petrosian will better serve the opposition push for a power change as a factor of consolidation rather than the main candidate.
“I can say from what I gathered from our yesterday’s meeting that Levon Ter-Petrosian does not yet appear to have decided whether he will run for president or not,” Manukian said.
Ex-foreign minister Alexander Arzumanian, who also attended the Monday meeting, admits it is still early to speak about the results, but places importance on the very fact of the meeting.
“It is very important today when Armenia’s independence is in danger that the two politicians who stood at the sources of this independence appear together,” Arzumanian told RFE/RL.
Arzumanian said he would support the opposition’s consolidation around the ex-president and expressed hope that both Ter-Petrosian and Manukian would be “guided by the interests of Armenia” rather than personal ambitions. “The logic of the struggle will lead to the nomination of a single candidate,” he added.
Ter-Petrosian is viewed by many opposition members affiliated with his loyalist Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party as the only candidate who can achieve regime change in Armenia. Despite numerous statements by Ter-Petrosian’s supporters about his impending nomination as a presidential candidate, the 62-year-old ex-president has not yet expressly stated his desire to enter the fray.
This view is not shared by Manukian and his supporters from the AZhM. In particular, shortly after Ter-Petrosian’s first public speech in nearly a decade on September 21 where he referred to the Armenian government as an “institutionalized mafia-style regime that has plunged us into the ranks of third world counties”, Manukian expressed his dismay at the assessment made by the former leader who he believes should have admitted his responsibility for serious political and economic problems facing Armenia today.
“I am disappointed because Levon Ter-Petrosian faced the same accusations, made in stronger or softer terms, during his presidency,” Manukian told RFE/RL in late September.
Aram Sarkisian, the leader of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun party, however, thinks Levon Ter-Petrosian is the only person who can wage a successful struggle against the current regime in Armenia. He does not agree with the statements of AZhM members that the opposition should rally primarily around Manukian. “We all need Levon Ter-Petrosian’s return so that we can finally enter the 21st century and do away with this clan-based system,” he told RFE/RL.
Sarkisian admitted that corrupt officials existed also during Ter-Petrosian’s eight-year presidency. “But having [a few] corrupt officials and creating an organized corrupt system are two different things,” he charged.
Another opposition leader, Stepan Demirchian, who also had a meeting with Ter-Petrosian recently, yet declines to talk about whom of the two former leaders he would support. But he promised to present his party’s approaches in the near future.