By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian kept harsh anti-government rhetoric at the heart of his election campaign Sunday, accusing Armenia’s leadership of pocketing billions of dollars in public funds and depopulating Nagorno-Karabakh to cling to power.
Campaigning in the eastern Gegharkunik region, Ter-Petrosian also insisted on his allegations that outgoing President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian were “responsible” for the 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. He implied that he will prosecute the two men on relevant charges if he wins the February 19 presidential election.
“They deserve not the throne of president of the Republic of Armenia but the defendant’s bench,” Ter-Petrosian told a campaign rally in the town of Sevan. “And let them not doubt that they are already assured of that bench.”
“Over the past ten years these authorities led by Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian have plundered, pocketed and stolen from you more than half of Armenia’s national wealth,” he charged. “They need another ten years to pocket the rest of it and to pawn Armenia in the Monte Carlo casino.”
Ter-Petrosian specifically alleged that in the past six years that the ruling “gang” has smuggled 3 million metric tons of petrol and illegally avoided paying at least $1 billion in taxes. The figures are apparently based on official statistics showing that fuel imports to Armenia, effectively monopolized by a handful of government-connected tycoons, have shrunk dramatically over the past decade despite a sharp increase in the number of cars.
The authorities attribute the drop to the fact that a significant proportion of vehicles owned by Armenians now run on liquefied gas. Opposition politicians and economists critical of the government dismiss this explanation, saying that the real volume of fuel imports should be at least the same as it was in 1997.
Ter-Petrosian’s statements highlighted an intensifying war of words between Armenia’s current and former leaders which is becoming the defining feature of the presidential race. Sarkisian renewed his verbal attacks on Ter-Petrosian as he held more government-organized campaign rallies in Yerevan on Saturday.
“A tired leader can not deal with the people’s problems,” Sarkisian told thousands of people in the city’s Zeytun district. “A tired person won’t bother to deal with state affairs. He is only capable of trying to retain power by doing intrigues, turning people against each other, dividing the nation.”
Kocharian, for his part, again went on national television Friday to condemn his predecessor’s perceived pro-Azerbaijani stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He said Ter-Petrosian’s conciliatory statements on the issue will make Azerbaijan more intransigent in the ongoing peace talks.
Ter-Petrosian countered that Armenia’s two Karabakh-born leaders have themselves put continued Armenian control over the territory at risk by resettling thousands of their relatives and other Karabakh Armenians in Yerevan. “Because of these two persons, 15,000 people have moved from Karabakh to Armenia, mainly Yerevan, in the past ten years. Each of them has been given a position,” he claimed at a rally in Tsovagyugh, a big village on the western coast of Lake Sevan. “As if that wasn’t enough, now the business sphere is also being given to them.”
The former Armenian leader cited the example of Aleksandr “Sashik” Sarkisian, the prime minister’s controversial brother who is thought to have made a big fortune in recent years. Reports in the Armenian press have said that the former bus driver has spent millions of dollars buying real estate in Europe and the United States.
“There were about 5,000 PAZ (a Soviet-made bus) drivers in Armenia,” Ter-Petrosian told some 200 Tsovagyugh residents attending the rally. “Somehow one PAZ driver from Abovian became one of Armenia’s richest men in a matter of two or three years and was able to make 30, 40 or 50 million dollars worth of investments in the US economy, in Los Angeles. He must be worth ten times that sum in order to be able to make such investments.”
“With 30 million dollars he could have rebuilt 30-40 villages in Karabakh,” he said. “If those people care about Karabakh, why are they investing money, illegally earned in Armenia, in America but not in Karabakh?”
Ter-Petrosian, who himself had appointed Sarkisian and Kocharian to top government positions in Yerevan in the 1990s, blasted the “Karabakh clan” in Sevan as well later in the day. “They are the most reliable power base of these authorities,” he claimed, referring to government-linked Karabakh Armenians. “In the event of Serzh Sarkisian’s victory, the Karabakh clan will grow bigger.”
The remarks may well strike a chord with those Armenians who feel that natives of Karabakh have gained disproportionate political and economic influence in Yerevan under Kocharian. Sarkisian sought to dispel this belief during campaign rallies in Yerevan last week, repeatedly assuring voters that he and Kocharian have never given privileged treatment to fellow Karabakh Armenians. Sarkisian argued that none of his ministers was born in Karabakh.
While warning that a handover of power from Kocharian to Sarkisian “would mean the end of Armenia,” Ter-Petrosian claimed that the two men are loathed by voters and can not win the election without falsifying its results. “I have already toured many regions and had dozens of such big and small meetings,” he said in Tsovagyugh. “As we criticized Serzh Sarkisian or Robert Kocharian during those meetings, I didn’t see a single face which didn’t enjoy that criticism or a face which expressed discontent.”
“Serzh won’t get any votes here,” one middle-aged local resident present at the rally told RFE/RL. “What Levon just said is true.”
Another, younger villager, who identified himself as Arsen, said he will vote for Ter-Petrosian because “he is the right man for the job.” “He is right to say that we were at war at the time and those years of cold and darkness were inevitable,” he said, referring to severe hardship that marked the first years of Ter-Petrosian’s presidency.
“It will probably take a Levon Ter-Petrosian comeback for things to get better,” said an elderly man in Lichashen, a big village near Sevan also visited by the ex-president.
But one young man, who also listened to Ter-Petrosian’s speech was more skeptical, even if he said he will likely vote for the opposition candidate. “All candidates promise a bright future, but little changes after elections,” he said.
Addressing Lichashen residents, Ter-Petrosian reaffirmed his campaign pledge to help double Armenia’s GDP and triple its state budget within five years, if elected president. In another pledge which will hardly please Western lending institutions, he committed himself to putting in place an ambitious scheme to compensate hundreds of thousands of Armenians who had effectively lost their lifetime bank savings in the hyperinflation of the early 1990s. He said the government should assume an internal debt of at least $3 billion, or more than Armenia’s entire state budget for this year, in order to gradually compensate those citizens.
The loss of Soviet-era savings was one of the most painful consequences of the country’s transition to the free market. It hit particularly hard elderly Armenians who were left to live on meager state pensions. Many of them still blame the ex-president for their rapid impoverishment.
“It was a good speech, I liked it,” one such pensioner residing in Sevan told RFE/RL after attending the Ter-Petrosian rally there. “But he gave the same promises back in 1990 but cut old people’s bank savings and electricity. I don’t want more of the same.” He said he still does not know who he will vote for on February 19.