By Astghik Bedevian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian brushed aside on Wednesday accusations of defeatism leveled against him by President Robert Kocharian and reaffirmed his stated commitment to seeking a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Campaigning in the eastern Gegharkunik region, the opposition candidate said he will make peace with Azerbaijan and ensure continued Armenian control over Karabakh if he wins the upcoming presidential election.
Reacting to Ter-Petrosian’s harsh anti-government rhetoric at the weekend, Kocharian renewed his allegations that his predecessor is ready to place the disputed region back under Azerbaijani rule. He said Ter-Petrosian would go so far as to disband Armenia’s armed forces in order to “get chummy with Azerbaijan.”
“If he takes cooperation of peoples and good neighborhood as chumminess, that is the expression of his cultural level, his state of mind,” Ter-Petrosian shot back at a campaign rally in Vartenis, a small town near the eastern shore of Lake Sevan.
“Yes, I am stating that the land which has been Armenian for 3,000 years will remain Armenian for another 3,000,” he said, referring to Karabakh. “That achievement has to be formalized by an international treaty, after which we will cooperate and establish good-neighborly relations with Azerbaijan.
“Because our main conduit to the outside world is Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani railway used to handle 85 percent of Armenia’s external cargo turnover.”
Ter-Petrosian was forced to step down ten years ago by his key cabinet members, including then Prime Minister Kocharian, for advocating a phased settlement of the conflict with Azerbaijan that would indefinitely delay agreement on Karabakh’s status. Kocharian and his allies stood for a so-called package peace deal that would formalize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan and settle all sticking points at once. The Kocharian administration now appears to have agreed, in principle, to international mediators’ most recent peace plan which is very similar to the one advocated by Ter-Petrosian in 1997 and 1998.
Verbal attacks on Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian were again the central theme of Ter-Petrosian’s speeches in the unemployment-stricken area. He again charged that their decade-long rule has been “based” on vote rigging and the 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament.
“Imagine Robert Kocharian’s rule continuing for another ten years in the form of Serzh Sarkisian,” he told hundreds of people rallying in Vartenis. “This is such a nightmarish prospect which I wouldn’t wish even to my enemies.”
“Take back the victories which were stolen from you in [the presidential elections of] 1998 and 2003. This is your victory. Take care of your victory,” added outspoken ex-president.
“Yerevan is with us,” claimed one of his top allies, Hanrapetutyun party leader Aram Sarkisian. “We’ve won there. We only have to prevail in the regions.”
Ter-Petrosian, who himself had been accused of rigging elections while in power, attracted visibly strong voter interest during his latest campaign trip, with hundreds of people attending his rallies in Vartenis, the nearby town of Martuni and several local villages. In two of those villages, opposition supporters slaughtered sheep and danced to folk music as they greeted Ter-Petrosian.
While the number of people listening to his speeches was relatively high, not all of them were Ter-Petrosian supporters. “He destroyed what we had. How can we be happy?” said one man, recalling Armenia’s economic meltdown of the early 1990s.
“I had no job here during his rule and I have no job now,” said another. “Nor will I have one under the next president.”