By Ruzanna Stepanian
President Serzh Sarkisian on Monday all but ruled out the possibility of starting a dialogue with his political opponents led by Levon Ter-Petrosian and said his governing coalition is broad-based enough to successfully meet challenges facing Armenia.
Sarkisian also downplayed criticism of his overtures to Turkey which was voiced recently by his predecessor Robert Kocharian.
The United States, the European Union and other international bodies have repeatedly called for a dialogue between the Armenian authorities and the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition since last February’s disputed presidential election and its bloody aftermath. Sarkisian himself sought to reach out to his bitter opponents just days after his controversial election win. His prime minister, Tigran Sarkisian, stated earlier this month that the offer “remains in force.”
“When I speak of a dialogue, I mean a dialogue with the people,” President Sarkisian clarified at his first news conference since his April 9 inauguration. “I mean a dialogue within the public, I mean a dialogue between the state and the public, rather than a dialogue between the president of the republic and some individual.”
“What should our dialogue be about?” he said, referring to the opposition. “If those people’s demand and goal is new elections, what should we talk about? About when to hold those elections?
“I am already tired of elections. We have held more than one election within a short period, and I think the next national elections will be in four years from now.”
Ter-Petrosian and his Popular Movement alliance refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Sarkisian’s victory in what they consider a rigged election and demand a re-run of the February 19 ballot. Ter-Petrosian has said at the same time he will be ready to negotiate with Sarkisian if the authorities release dozens of opposition members supporters arrested before and after the March 1 unrest in Yerevan.
Sarkisian claimed that he has no authority to free individuals considered as political prisoners by the opposition and human rights groups. “I’m not used to working like that,” he said. “It’s a very bad temptation because freeing dozens of persons with one phone call would also mean being able to jail dozens of people with one phone call.”
An aide to Ter-Petrosian scoffed at this argument, insisting that Sarkisian tightly controls Armenia’s security apparatus and courts. “Does that mean they can jail people with one phone call but when it comes to freeing them they are powerless?” said Levon Zurabian.
Zurabian also portrayed Sarkisian’s remarks as a further indication that the authorities were never serious about negotiating with the opposition. “This is primitive demagoguery with which Serzh Sarkisian publicly acknowledged that he has no plans for a dialogue with the opposition,” he told RFE/RL.
The Ter-Petrosian camp has given Sarkisian until August 1 to release all “political prisoners” and meet other opposition demands or face the possibility of a renewed opposition campaign of non-stop street protests.
Sarkisian indicated that he is strong enough to face fresh opposition challenges to his rule, pointing to his four-party coalition and its members’ strong electoral performances. “And after all, I rely on the Republican Party, which is the largest in Armenia and has a majority in parliament,” he said. “Can there be anything more influential?”
Sarkisian also declined to hit back at Kocharian for openly criticizing his decision to invite Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul to visit Yerevan for the September 6 match between the Armenian and Turkish national football teams. He said he “respects” Kocharian’s statement and does not regard it as criticism. He noted at the same time he had policy differences with the former Armenian president even before succeeding the latter as head of state but always preferred to not to voice them in public.
Sarkisian went on to defend his extraordinary invitation extended to Gul and stressed the importance of improving Armenia’s strained relations with Turkey. He further confirmed reports that senior diplomats from the two countries met in Switzerland earlier this month to discuss the new chance of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
“Despite the absence of diplomatic relations, Armenian-Turkish contacts have never stopped, I see nothing sensational in the fact that Armenian and Turkish diplomats met in Geneva,” he said.