By Emil Danielyan and Shakeh Avoyan
President Robert Kocharian responded on Wednesday to his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrosian’s latest harsh criticism of the current Armenian leadership by again accusing him of “ruining” the country’s economy during the early 1990s.
In his first public reaction to Ter-Petrosian’s Friday speech, Kocharian said independent Armenia’s first president is “filled with malice” and lacks elementary knowledge of economics. “It is that malice that had destroyed the [former ruling party] HHSh,” he said in remarks broadcast by Armenian television.
In his 90-minute speech at a big rally in central Yerevan, Ter-Petrosian reiterated his claims that Kocharian and his chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, have turned Armenia into a “gangster state” based on rampant government corruption, utter disregard of law and suppression of dissent. Ter-Petrosian accused the ruling “criminal regime” of pocketing billions of dollars in taxes and informal payments allegedly extorted from local businesspeople. He also effectively held Kocharian responsible for the October 1999 armed attack on the Armenian parliament.
Kocharian did not directly comment on these allegations, choosing instead to again remind Armenians of severe hardship suffered by them during Ter-Petrosian’s rule. He said Armenia was “one of the most developed and industrialized republics of the Soviet Union” when the Ter-Petrosian-led HHSh swept to power in 1990. “Within three to four years Armenia became one of the poorest countries of the world,” he said.
“Armenia’s industry was destroyed in a matter of a few years,” added Kocharian. “It can be said now that they inherited an essentially normal [economic] situation and bequeathed to me in 1998 a country with a ruined economy.”
Armenia’s GDP shrunk by more than half in 1992-1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere in the region that all but cut off the country from the outside world. The economic slump was compounded by crippling power shortages. The Armenian economy began to slowly recover after a Russian-mediated truce stopped the war in Karabakh. Economic growth accelerated in the late 1990s and now looks set to remain in double digits for the sixth consecutive year.
Kocharian downplayed the impact of the collapse of the Soviet command economy on the economic meltdown of the early 1990s, insisting that it mainly resulted from the Ter-Petrosian administration’s alleged incompetence and mismanagement. “I think only people who understand economics a little should talk about the subject,” he said in a jibe at the ex-president.
Kocharian, who governed Karabakh from 1992 and until being appointed by Ter-Petrosian as Armenia’s prime minister in 1997, made no mention of the debilitating effects of the war and economic blockades imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey. He noted instead that his government’s 2007 budget exceeds, in nominal monetary terms, Armenia’s entire 1997 GDP.
Throughout his leadership of Karabakh Kocharian was widely regarded as a staunch Ter-Petrosian ally and never publicly criticized the Yerevan government’s economic policies. He endorsed Ter-Petrosian’s hotly disputed reelection in 1996.
Kocharian’s criticism of Armenia’s former leadership was dismissed as a “deliberate lie” by Hrant Bagratian, Ter-Petrosian’s prime minister from 1993-1996. “You can’t talk like that,” he told RFE/RL in an interview. “Especially if you came to power thanks to your predecessor.”
“Those were heroic years,” he said, pointing to the Armenian victory in the Karabakh war and his liberal economic reforms praised by Western donors. He said the war effort absorbed substantial financial resources that could have otherwise been used for mitigating the country’s painful transition to the free market.
Bagratian argued that his government financed large-scale construction in Armenia’s northern regions devastated by the 1988 even during the war. “In 1993, 358,000 square meters [of housing space] were built in the [earthquake-hit] towns of Gyumri, Vanadzor and Spitak,” he said. “The same amount of construction was done in 2006, but mainly in the center of Yerevan. And they did that for profit.”
“If I hadn’t built three military bases in Karabakh, we would not have an earthquake zone now,” he added.
Bagratian further argued that it is the Ter-Petrosian administration that overcame Armenia’s severe energy crisis by reactivating in late 1995 the Metsamor nuclear plant that had been shut down shortly after the 1988 quake. “For the first time in the history of the world, a country at war reactivated a nuclear power plant,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian announced at his first rally in more than a decade that he will contest the upcoming presidential election in a bid to scuttle a transfer of power from Kocharian to Prime Minister Sarkisian. Unlike the outgoing Armenian president, Sarkisian has still not publicly commented on the move.
Kocharian made the comments as he spoke to Armenia’s leading TV stations loyal to his administration after inaugurating a Diaspora-funded sporting facility in Yerevan. In what seems to have become a pattern, the presidential press service refused to grant an RFE/RL correspondent accreditation needed for covering the event.