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Armenia: Former President Lambastes 'Criminal Regime'

  • Liz Fuller --> Ter-Petrossian has been cagey on whether he will run for president next year (file) (epa) The speaker of the parliament responsible for Armenia's secession from the Soviet Union took advantage of the anniversary of that decision to harshly criticize the country's current leadership. RFE/RL's regional analyst comments on former parliament speaker and President Levon Ter-Petrossian's biting evaluation of his successor's administration.

September 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking in Yerevan on the 16th anniversary of Armenia's 1991 declaration of secession, Levon Ter-Petrossian singled out President Robert Kocharian, one of the key figures behind Ter-Petrossian's forced resignation as president in February 1998.

In his first major address for nine years, Ter-Petrossian on September 21 accused Kocharian of presiding over a "criminal regime" that has turned Armenia into a "third-world country" and jeopardized all chance of achieving a settlement of the Karabakh conflict on terms acceptable to Armenia.

At the same time, Ter-Petrossian said he has not yet decided whether to run in the presidential elections due in early 2008, in which Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.

Denouncing the current leadership as "an institutionalized mafia-style regime that has plunged us into the ranks of third-world counties," Ter-Petrossian argued that regime change is a fundamental national priority, given that "survival of this government gives us no chance of ever getting out of this situation," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But he conceded that "the only way to get rid of these authorities is the consolidation of all sound political, public, intellectual, and spiritual forces around a single [presidential] candidate."

Single Opposition Candidate?

Armenian opposition parties have for weeks been debating the possibility of aligning behind a single candidate to challenge Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, whom Kocharian was quoted as endorsing on September 14 as the only politician in Armenia with the necessary experience and professional qualities to succeed him.

But until now, few observers have rated Ter-Petrossian's chances of being selected as that single opposition candidate very high. Moreover, Vazgen Manukian, the veteran oppositionist who served under Ter-Petrossian in the early 1990s first as prime minister and then as defense minister, told journalists in Yerevan on September 5 that even assuming Ter-Petrossian decides to run in 2008, which Manukian considered unlikely, he would not withdraw his own candidacy in favor of the former president.

In the 1996 presidential election, several opposition candidates pulled out at the last minute to back Manukian against Ter-Petrossian, who was proclaimed the victor with 52 percent of the vote compared to 41 percent for Manukian.

In an interview with state television two years later, one of Ter-Petrossian's chief henchmen, former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian, admitted that the results of the 1996 presidential vote were rigged to preclude a second round runoff between Ter-Petrossian and Manukian.

In addition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which is an associate member of the coalition government, has announced its firm intention of fielding its own presidential candidate in 2008 rather than backing Prime Minister Sarkisian, even though its recent congress in Nagorno-Karabakh failed to yield agreement on who that candidate should be -- parliament Deputy Speaker Vahan Hovannisian or parliament foreign-affairs committee Chairman Armen Rustamian.

In the event of a second runoff between Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian, however, the HHD would throw its weight behind Sarkisian. Aside from their ideological differences, the HHD has a personal score to settle with Ter-Petrossian, who in late December 1994 declared the party illegal and in July 1995 ordered the arrest of 31 of its activists, including both Hovannisian and Rustamian, on charges of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the country's leadership.

Two years later, the Supreme Court sentenced Hovannisian to four and Rustamian to three years' imprisonment. One of Kocharian's first moves after becoming acting president in February 1998 was to relegalize the HHD and order the release from jail of Hovannisian, whom he subsequently named as one of his aides.

Hovannisian on September 24 hit back at Ter-Petrossian, who he said has no moral right to criticize the Kocharian leadership, given that his eight-year tenure as president was marred by fraudulent elections, human-rights violations, and other abuses. He said the "vicious phenomena" that still persist in Armenia have their roots in the Ter-Petrossian era. Hovannisian said the HHD would welcome Ter-Petrossian's participation in next year's presidential ballot as it would add "an ideological element" to the race. But he predicted that Ter-Petrossian will ultimately decide against running as his chances of winning are minimal and "he doesn't like losing."

Accusations Over Karabakh

In his address on September 21, Ter-Petrossian described as the "greatest crime" committed by Kocharian and Sarkisian their failure to agree to a solution to the Karabakh conflict. In the fall of 1997, Ter-Petrossian published a seminal article entitled "War And Peace: Time For Serious Thought," in which he argued that resolving the Karabakh conflict rather than preserving the status quo was in the interests of both Armenia and the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR), in order to remove obstacles to economic development and unspecified "problems" in Armenia's relations with other countries; that the conflict should be resolved peacefully, rather than militarily; and that the eventual settlement should constitute a compromise in which neither side would emerge as either the winner or the loser.

Ter-Petrossian stressed that "compromise is not a choice between the good and the bad, but rather between the bad and the [even] worse." And he went on to warn that "The opposition should not mislead the people by arguing that there is an alternative to compromise; the alternative to compromise is war."

In "War And Peace" Ter-Petrossian also addressed anew the question of the relative merits of the so-called "phased" and "package" approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, noting that since both Azerbaijan and the NKR leadership had rejected two successive draft peace plans proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group that were based on the "package" approach, it made sense for Armenia to accept as a basis for negotiation the subsequent (September 1997) Minsk Group "phased" blueprint, even though he considered its terms far from ideal.

This is Kocharian's last term allowed under the constitution (AFP)

It has long been accepted as "conventional wisdom" that Ter-Petrossian's endorsement of the September 1997 phased peace plan was the primary, if not the sole reason why several of his ministers, including Kocharian and Sarkisian -- then premier and interior minister, respectively -- launched the campaign that culminated in his forced resignation in February 1998. But as Ter-Petrossian's former adviser Gerard Libaridian points out in his book, "The Challenges of Statehood," Ter-Petrossian had argued earlier in favor of a compromise solution to the conflict, and the ministers in question had not previously taken issue with that argument. Libaridian also affirmed that the disagreement between Ter-Petrossian and the triumvirate that sought to oust him did not center on the relative merits of the "phased" vs. the "package" approaches to resolving the conflict.

Ter-Petrossian argued on September 21 that Azerbaijan is now less and less prepared to make concessions to the Armenian side because of its mounting oil revenues. "From now on they will not agree to any concessions. I don't know what needs to be done to get out of this situation," he said.

Ter-Petrossian embarked in early August on a series of meetings with supporters and HHSh sympathizers across Armenia, and the HHSh subsequently announced its intention of nominating him as its presidential candidate. But that party is widely perceived as compromised and enjoying only minimal support. The radical Hanrapetutiun (Republic) opposition party headed by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian likewise backs Ter-Petrossian, as do a couple of small HHSh splinter groups, including Aylentrank (Alternative). An opinion poll conducted in July found that if presidential elections were held then, only some 1.7 percent of the 1,200 respondents would have voted for Ter-Petrossian.

Presumably precisely because the degree of popular support he could count on remains unclear, Ter-Petrossian declined on September 21 to say whether he will in fact participate in the 2008 ballot. "I have not made a decision yet.... I am still examining, weighing up, considering things. My approach is purely political. I can't be guided by emotions. Adventurism is alien to my character," RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as saying.

(Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian of RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this analysis.)

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