By Emil Danielyan
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian has issued a blanket endorsement of Russia’s military campaign in neighboring Georgia, saying that it saved the population of South Ossetia from “genocide.”
He also said that Armenia’s government is right to maintain a “positive neutrality” in the conflict which is threatening to trigger a new “cold war” between Russia and the West.
“Nobody can dispute the fact that Georgia provoked the war in order to eliminate the [breakaway] republic of South Ossetia,” Ter-Petrosian said in an interview with the A1Plus.am news service posted late Wednesday. “Nobody can also dispute the fact that with its resolute intervention Russia saved the South Ossetian people from genocide. Had the Russian assistance arrived even six hours late, South Ossetia would not have existed today.”
Ter-Petrosian claimed at the same time that the Georgian government planned to “deport,” rather than “annihilate,” the region’s mostly Ossetian population. “[Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili could not fail to realize that an annihilation would not be forgiven by the international community, whereas a deportation could be tolerated in one way or another,” he said.
Thousands of Russian troops backed up by many tanks and armored vehicles dashed into South Ossetia through a mountain tunnel on August 8 just hours after the Georgian army attempted to restore Tbilisi’s control over the region. They went on to occupy large swathes of territory in Georgia proper, forcing tens of thousands of Georgians to flee their homes and effectively paralyzing the country’s economic life. Russia’s counteroffensive has been condemned as disproportionate by the United States and the European Union.
Ter-Petrosian, who served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998, dismissed the Western criticism. “I don’t know of a single case in world history where a big power’s riposte to a challenge against it was proportionate,” he said.
Echoing Moscow’s highly negative attitude towards the pro-Western government in Tbilisi, Ter-Petrosian went on to blame Saakashvili for the “national catastrophe” facing Georgia and predicted that Georgians could soon revolt against their president. “I have no doubts that none other the Georgian people will hold their government answerable for all this in the near future,” he said.
The remarks are extraordinary for a man who was known for his pro-Western leanings throughout his presidency and whose political allies repeatedly accused his successor Robert Kocharian of turning Armenia into a Russian “outpost” in the South Caucasus. Ter-Petrosian also won acclaim in the West for his conciliatory views on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenia’s relations with Turkey.
The 63-year-old ex-president has consistently asserted his pro-Russian credentials ever since staging a dramatic political comeback a year ago. He has rejected any parallels between his bid to return to power on the back of a popular movement and the Western-backed “color revolutions” in Georgia and other ex-Soviet states that were opposed by Russia. Ter-Petrosian reportedly met Russian leaders during a confidential visit to Moscow in the run-up to Armenia’s February 19 presidential election.
Ter-Petrosian lambasted Western powers and commended the Kremlin during his massive post-election demonstrations in Yerevan. He reiterated the harsh criticism at a July news conference, alleging that “the West is not interested in having a legitimate and strong government in Armenia.”
While unequivocally backing the Russian military intervention in Georgia, the opposition leader made clear that he essentially agrees with the Armenian government’s neutral stance in the Georgian-Russian war. “In this sense, there is no reason to be unhappy with the position of Armenia’s authorities,” he said.
Still, Ter-Petrosian added that the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian should “draw lessons” from a conflict that has seriously complicated Armenia’s transport communication with the outside world. The most important lesson, according to him, is that Armenia must not be heavily dependent on Georgia in carrying out its foreign trade. “That must force [the authorities] to take positive steps to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and settle Turkish-Armenian relations,” he said.