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Armenia: Former President Unveils Election Manifesto

  • Emil Danielyan

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian made public on January 7 his election campaign manifesto for the presidential ballot on February 19, pledging to turn Armenia into a "normal" state where governments are formed as a result of free elections and respect laws, human rights, and free enterprise. The 16-page document also reaffirms his earlier bitter criticism of the country's current leadership, affirming that an election victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's would be "tantamount to a national disaster."

One week earlier, Ter-Petrossian's national campaign headquarters, to be managed by former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzoumanian, opened in Yerevan. Its coordinating council, which comprises representatives of some of the opposition parties allied with Ter-Petrossian, held its first meeting and appointed the heads of its territorial branches in Yerevan on December 29. As of January 8, Ter-Petrossian has opened local election headquarters in each of Armenia's 11 marzes (provinces), Noyan Tapan reported.

It was decided that the Ter-Petrossian campaign in Yerevan will be run by Khachatur Sukiasian, a wealthy parliamentarian who has been facing a government crackdown on his businesses ever since expressing support last September for Ter-Petrossian's comeback bid. Sukiasian will oversee the work of Ter-Petrossian campaign offices in each of the city's 10 administrative districts. Among the heads of those offices are former Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian and Pargev Ohanian, a prominent judge who was controversially dismissed by President Robert Kocharian last fall after acquitting two businessmen who accused the State Customs Committee of corruption and extortion.

Ter-Petrosian's preelection speeches so far have analyzed in depth controversial episodes from his 1991-98 presidency as well as the current Armenian government's track record. Those evaluations, coupled with a retrospective look at the last few decades of Armenian history, make up a large part of the published manifesto. Ter-Petrossian, who turned 63 on January 9, again denounces the Kocharian administration as a corrupt and criminal regime that tolerates no dissent and is motivated by self-enrichment at the expense of a downtrodden population.

The document also lays out his vision for Armenia's future. It says that, if elected, Ter-Petrossian will strive for the "dismantling of the existing kleptrocratic system" and the establishment of "full-fledged democracy" anchored in free elections, protection of human rights, and judicial independence. In addition, law-enforcement bodies and the military would no longer be used as tools for government repression.

Ter-Petrossian's longtime critics, however, see few fundamental differences between him and Armenia's leaders. They point, among other things, to the Ter-Petrossian administration's failure to hold a single election recognized as free and fair by the international community.

Ter-Petrossian's socioeconomic agenda is based on three key principles of market-based economics that he believes are absent in Armenia: a level playing field for all businesspeople; fair economic competition; and absolute protection of private property. While pledging to retrieve what he says are huge amounts of money "stolen from the people" by wealthy businessmen with ties to the government, Ter-Petrossian says that if elected, he would not seek a massive "redistribution of property."

Ter-Petrossian further commits himself to launching a crackdown on widespread tax evasion that he says should primarily target large corporate taxpayers that are believed to grossly underreport their earnings thanks to government patronage. "According to foreign experts, only 22 percent of the state budget's tax revenues is currently paid by large entrepreneurs, whereas [that proportion] should have stood at 75 percent," his campaign platform claims.

In that regard, the document reaffirms Ter-Petrossian's pledge to help abolish a government-drafted law that took effect on January 1 and that will make it much harder for small Armenian firms to qualify for so-called "simplified tax." Payment of that tax has exempted them from other, heftier duties.

According to Ter-Petrossian, these and other economic measures contained in his platform would double Armenia's gross domestic product and triple its state budget in the next five years. "Needless to say that in the event of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the lifting of the economic blockades [of Armenia,] and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, much more impressive results could be expected," reads the platform. During the 1996 presidential election campaign, members of the Ter-Petrossian leadership poured scorn on rival candidate Vazgen Manukian's pledge to raise GDP by a similar amount.

Responding to Ter-Petrossian's grave allegations, Kocharian and Sarkisian have been particularly scathing about his handling of the first years of Armenia's painful transition to the free market. The Armenian economy shrunk by half in 1992-93 following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of wars in Karabakh and elsewhere in the South Caucasus. Kocharian has charged that the Ter-Petrossian administration was primarily responsible for turning Armenia into "one of the poorest countries" in the world.

In his manifesto, Ter-Petrossian reaffirms his belief that the collapse of the Soviet economy was inevitable and that it was more drastic in Armenia than in other former Soviet republics because of the Karabakh war and the crippling blockades imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as turmoil in Georgia. But he admits that many Armenians do not and will not accept this explanation. "When a person is worse off today than he was yesterday, no logical explanation can satisfy him," he says.

The document is far less specific on foreign-policy matters, with Ter-Petrossian saying only that he would strengthen Armenia's relations with Russia, Georgia and Iran and promising "constructive efforts" to normalize ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

On the Karabakh conflict, the manifesto says Ter-Petrossian would display the "political will" to achieve a compromise peace deal with Azerbaijan that would enable the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to exercise their "right to self-determination." It does not specify Ter-Petrossian's position on international mediators' existing peace proposals.