By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian again rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan on Friday, urging broader opposition support for his return to power and responding scathingly to verbal attacks from President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. In a more than hour-long speech, he said his decision to promote the two Nagorno-Karabakh-born men to high-ranking government positions in Yerevan in the 1990s has proved to be “disastrous” for Armenia.
The speech also contained a long-awaited critical analysis of his track record in government, with Ter-Petrosian apologizing to Armenians for the “suffering” they had endured during the first years of the country’s independence. But he insisted that it had primarily been caused by the victorious war with Azerbaijan and the resulting Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia.
Ter-Petrosian also called on the West to press the authorities in Yerevan to take key anti-fraud measures ahead of the upcoming Armenian presidential election. Failure to do that would render “meaningless” international monitoring of the February 19 vote, he warned.
“Seeing the latest steps by Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian, I am increasingly convinced that I need to repent and ask for absolution,” he told about 20,000 people who gathered in the city’s Liberty Square. “Therefore, I belatedly but sincerely apologize to you for bringing Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian to Armenia and foisting them upon you.”
“If I made mistakes in my staffing policy -- and I really did -- this is the biggest one. In fact, this is not a mistake but a disaster which I inflicted on our people. So help me rid you of that disaster,” he added, drawing cheers from the crowd.
The blistering attack came in response to Sarkisian’s weekend speech in which he said Ter-Petrosian should “repent and apologize to the Armenian people for, to put it mildly, mistakes committed by him.”
Ter-Petrosian countered that Sarkisian was for years a key member of his administration and never spoke of any government mistakes or policy failures during his 1991-1998 presidency. “Serzh Sarkisian is as much [part of] the current government as [he was of] the former one,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian also rejected Kocharian’s allegations that Armenia’s former leadership mismanaged and even “ruined” the Armenian economy. Reacting to Ter-Petrosian’s harsh criticism of his administration on October 31, Kocharian downplayed the Karabakh war’s impact on Armenia’s economic collapse of the early 1990s that was compounded by a severe energy crisis.
Ter-Petrosian spent a large part of his speech trying to substantiate his view that the wars in Karabakh, which all but cut off Armenia from the rest of the world, and elsewhere in the region were the root cause of that. He said the war effort also required enormous material resources that could have otherwise been used for the facilitating the country’s transition to the free market. Ter-Petrosian specifically elaborated on the causes of the power shortages which meant that Armenian households had only a few hours of electricity a day between 1992 and 1995.
“I can still not disclose state secrets but will assure you that the money we spent on securing weapons, ammunition and fuel, supplying the army, defending the border regions of Armenia and restoring disrupted communication infrastructure would have been enough to fully provide our people with heat and electricity,” said Ter-Petrosian.
Ter-Petrosian said both Kocharian and Sarkisian are well aware of this by virtue of being the war-time leaders of Karabakh. He cited Kocharian as telling to him in a 1995 congratulatory message that “the grateful people of Artsakh (Karabakh) will never forget your personal contribution to our heroic struggle.”
“I do realize that my lengthy explanations will not dispel many people’s doubts. So I am left to solicit the forgiveness of the people for the suffering inflicted on them for the sake of Artsakh’s salvation,” declared Ter-Petrosian.
The 62-year-old former scholar also strongly disagreed with those who believe that the roots of Armenia’s existing political and economic ills date back to the 1990s and that there are no fundamental differences between his and Kocharian’s administrations. “The current and former authorities can not be [seen as] identical for one simple reason. The former leadership was political, while the current one is criminal,” he charged.
While admitting that government corruption was a serious problem during his rule, Ter-Petrosian insisted that it did not have a systemic character. He claimed that the current Armenian authorities have scrutinized his and his associates’ past activities since his resignation in 1998 in the hope of implicating them in corruption and other wrongdoing.
“Imagine what they would have done to use if they had found any concrete fact [of corruption,]” he said. “They would have destroyed us, they would hanged us on this podium.”
Ter-Petrosian’s speech at the rally was preceded by much shorter statements made by the leaders of a dozen mostly small opposition parties supporting his presidential bid. Also addressing the crowd was Khachatur Sukiasian, a wealthy businessman and parliament deputy who has been facing a government crackdown on his businesses since openly voicing support for the ex-president’s comeback last month.
“I am proud of standing next to the founding president of the Republic of Armenia,” stated Sukiasian. He said there are “dozens” of other entrepreneurs who support Ter-Petrosian but are afraid of speaking out.
Another speaker read out a letter from Zhirayr Sefilian, a prominent Karabakh war veteran and nationalist politician controversially imprisoned by the authorities. It welcomed the “liberation movement” started by Ter-Petrosian and his allies and urged them to “take the struggle to the end.” Unlike the ex-president, Sefilian opposes any land concessions to Azerbaijan.
While welcoming the multiparty support, Ter-Petrosian appealed to other influential opposition figures to rally around his presidential candidacy and “get rid of this criminal regime.” He specifically mentioned his former prime minister and longtime rival, Vazgen Manukian, as well as former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian.
All three men have long been harboring presidential ambitions. Seeking to win over them, Ter-Petrosian declared that if elected he will serve as president only for three years and “leave the political arena for good.” Armenians would then be able to “choose a new president in absolutely free and fair elections,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian further urged the OSCE, the Council of Europe and other international organizations that have monitored Armenian elections to help ensure that all ballots for the upcoming presidential election are printed aboard and that voters casting those ballots have their fingers marked by indelible ink. He claimed that multiple voting and circulation of forged ballots was widespread during the May parliamentary described as largely democratic by Western observers.
Ter-Petrosian alleged that in fact the polls were the “most disgraceful in Armenia’s history” because “vote falsifications were disguised with such ingenuity that no observer could detect them.” He said the Western-led monitoring missions should also engage in a more in-depth long-term monitoring of the February 19 election. “If all this is not done, then the mission of international monitoring organizations in Armenia will become meaningless,” he said. “Furthermore, it will contribute to the legitimization of elections held with blatant fraud.”
Ter-Petrosian himself was accused by opponents of rigging elections while in power. In particular, he ordered troops to the streets of Yerevan to quell violent opposition protests against his hotly disputed reelection in 1996. He admitted on Friday that the 1996 vote and parliamentary elections held in 1995 were “disputed,” but stopped short of calling them fraudulent.