By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Outgoing President Robert Kocharian proposed on Friday changes in Armenia’s Criminal Code that are apparently meant to stop opposition leaders exploiting the Nagorno-Karabakh origin of the country’s top leaders.
Kocharian reportedly stressed the need to criminalize actions that “drive a wedge between various sections of the Armenian people” during a visit to Stepanakert, his hometown, earlier this week. He reiterated and elaborated on the idea just five days before handing over power to President-elect Serzh Sarkisian, also a native of Karabakh.
“It will be right if our legislation makes it a crime to drive a wedge or spread hatred between various sections of the Armenian people,” Kocharian told journalists in Yerevan.
“The interests of ethnic minorities are protected, the racial discrimination is a crime, but dissemination of hatred between various sections of the Armenian people is not punishable,” he said. “Why? Especially considering the fact that there are political forces and figures who are ready to provide that service to external forces.”
It was a clear reference to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and other opposition leaders who have accused Kocharian-Sarkisian duo of placing fellow Karabakh Armenians in key government positions in Yerevan and giving them lucrative businesses in order to hold on to power. Ter-Petrosian repeatedly made such allegations during campaigning for last February’s presidential election. He claimed in particular that as many as 15,000 Karabakh Armenians have moved to Yerevan over the past decade.
Sarkisian dismissed the opposition claims in his campaign speeches. He argued that none of his ministers was born in Karabakh and that only one major government agency, the State Tax Service (STS), is headed by a Karabakh Armenian.
Sarkisian has not yet publicly commented on Kocharian’s calls. He is scheduled to be sworn in as Armenia’s new president on Wednesday.
In what may have been his last conversation with reporters before the completion of his second and final term in office, Kocharian made it clear that he will not engage in dialogue with Ter-Petrosian. “I am not prepared for any dialogue and believe that individuals who committed criminally punishable deeds must be held accountable,” he said.
Kocharian reiterated government claims that Ter-Petrosian’s post-election demonstrations, which culminated in the March 1 deadly clashes between opposition protesters and riot police, were an attempted coup d’etat. None of more than 100 opposition activists arrested by the authorities must therefore be regarded as a political prisoner, he said.
“It is already clear that the disturbances had an organized character,” he said. “Those people who are exploiting the issue of political prisoners will be deeply disappointed during court sessions when they acquaint themselves with factual materials that are being accumulated by the investigating team. They will see who they tried to defend.”
Earlier on Friday, Kocharian delivered a farewell speech to government ministers following their weekly cabinet session. “I want to thank destiny for giving me the privilege of bearing responsibility for the Republic of Armenia for ten years,” he said. “These have been extremely interesting, difficult, important and eventful years.”