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Armenia: Mutual Animosity, Mistrust Overshadow Presidential Election

  • Liz Fuller

The Armenian presidential election on February 19 will determine whether incumbent President Robert Kocharian, who is barred by the constitution from serving a third consecutive term, succeeds in handing over power to his anointed successor, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, whose Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) won a majority of seats in the parliament elected in May 2007.

Six months ago, Sarkisian's victory in the first round of voting seemed beyond doubt in light of his control of administrative resources and the absence of any credible challenger, but the October decision by Kocharian's predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian to participate in the ballot opens the possibility that, as was the case in 1998 and 2003, a runoff will be required. Ter-Petrossian's decision also effectively demolished the possibility that the opposition might field a single challenger to Sarkisian. The leaders of five opposition parties met in August 2007 to explore that option, but failed to reach any agreement.

Ter-Petrossian, who is 63 and an oriental scholar, spent a decade in obscurity writing a history of the Crusades after being forced by Kocharian and Sarkisian in February 1998 to resign. In two key addresses, on September 21 and October 26, announcing his comeback bid and intention to run for president, Ter-Petrossian excoriated the present leadership as "an institutionalized mafia-style regime that has plunged us into the ranks of third-world countries" and jeopardized all chance of achieving a settlement of the Karabakh conflict on terms acceptable to Armenia. He further accused Kocharian, Sarkisian, and their inner circle of personally controlling the most lucrative forms of economic activity through direct ownership of businesses or "state racketeering."

Kocharian retaliated on October 31, accusing Ter-Petrossian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement of destroying the country's economy within a few years of coming to power and bequeathing him in 1998 "a country with a ruined economy." Sarkisian for his part on November 10 advised Ter-Petrossian to "repent and apologize to the Armenian people" for his errors. Then on November 16, Ter-Petrossian apologized to the Armenian population for having committed "disastrous errors of judgment," during his tenure as president from 1991-98, of which he identified as the most serious having brought Kocharian and Sarkisian from Nagorno-Karabakh to occupy senior posts in the Armenian government.

Even before that, Armenian tax and law enforcement agencies began systematically harassing people and media outlets that openly supported Ter-Petrossian. Last month, tax inspectors impounded thousands of campaign flyers as a member of Ter-Petrossian's campaign staff took delivery of them from a Yerevan printing firm. Noyan Tapan's veteran political commentator David Petrossian noted in a December 2 analysis that Ter-Petrossian's campaign team was distributing DVDs of his addresses of September 21 and October 26 in a bid to obviate the refusal of virtually all Armenian television channels to give him air time.

Of a total of 12 candidates who initially sought to register, nine succeeded in doing so. U.S.-born former Foreign Minister and Zharangutiun (Heritage) party Chairman Raffi Hovannisian was denied registration on the grounds that he acquired Armenian citizenship only in 2001; Armenia's election law stipulates that presidential candidates must have been citizens of the Republic of Armenia for a minimum of 10 years prior to the ballot. Zharangutiun subsequently declined to throw its support behind another candidate. Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party leader Aram Karapetian was similarly denied registration as he has not lived permanently in Armenia for the past decade. No explanation was given as to why that requirement did not render him ineligible to register for the 2003 presidential election, in which he polled fourth with 2.95 percent of the vote.

In addition to Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian, the remaining seven candidates are Orinats Yerkir party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian, who was constrained to resign as parliament speaker in May 2006 following a public polemic with Kocharian over NATO membership; opposition National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, who served under Ter-Petrossian in the early 1990s as defense minister and prime minister and was his main challenger in the 1996 presidential election; Vahan Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi) of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), whose party, although aligned with the HHK-led coalition government, declined to back Sarkisian's candidacy; National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian, who ran unsuccessfully in the presidential elections in 1998 and 2003; People's Party Chairman Tigran Karapetian; National Accord Party (AMK) Chairman Aram Harutiunian; and Arman Melikian, who was foreign-policy adviser to Arkady Ghuksian, the former president of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Of those seven, two -- Geghamian and Hovannisian -- are vying to be acknowledged as the "third force" capable of creaming off enough votes to deny the frontrunner the 50 percent-plus-one vote required for a first-round victory and thus force a second round, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 13. Hovannisian told journalists that "it is unfortunate that Armenia is entering the election period with two hostile poles.... A three-horse race will totally change the situation. It will expose the real force." At the same time, Hovannisian implied that the HHD will not pull out of the government in the event that he is elected president. While Hovannisian has every reason to resent both Ter-Petrossian, who banned his party in December 1994 and had Hovannisian arrested on terrorism charges, and Sarkisian, who as Ter-Petrossian's interior minister was personally involved in that crackdown, he nonetheless hopes for a strong election showing that would cement the HHD's position within the coalition government.

Geghamian's primary motive in registering for the ballot was to thwart Ter-Petrossian's comeback plans, AMK Deputy Chairman Aleksan Karapetian told journalists on November 27. Geghamian has repeatedly attacked Ter-Petrossian as a "political lightweight" whose loyalists he claims plan to provoke violent unrest at polling stations and thus unleash "civil war," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 13. Some observers believes Geghamian's campaign is being financed by Sarkisian with the aim of splitting the opposition vote. Opinion polls, however, show that Baghdasarian stands the greatest chance of forcing Sarkisian into a runoff.

An impressive number of small political parties and public organizations have nonetheless pledged support for Ter-Petrossian, including former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun party and the People's Party of Armenia headed by Stepan Demirchian, who lost to Kocharian in the second round of the February-March 2003 presidential election. But several other opposition leaders clearly share Geghamian's misgivings about the former president. Both Manukian and Baghdasarian rejected Ter-Petrossian's November 16 appeal for their support. Manukian told journalists in Yerevan on November 20 that while he would dearly like to see the present Armenian leadership replaced, he does not think a return to power by Ter-Petrossian would improve the situation. "There are people who consider Levon Ter-Petrossian the lesser evil, but there are also many, many people who consider Serzh Sarkisian the lesser evil. And I don't rule out the possibility that if Levon Ter-Petrossian and Serzh Sarkisian go into a second round, Serzh Sarkisian will emerge as the legitimate president," Manukian said. Manukian was pessimistic about the chances of any opposition candidate defeating Sarkisian given the latter's control of "administrative resources, financial resources, and the entire election process."

In mid-December, the pro-Ter-Petrossian newspaper "Haykakan zhamanak" published what it claimed were excerpts from Manukian's private papers confiscated by security forces during the crackdown that followed the 1996 presidential election. The notes allegedly made by Manukian stress the need to recruit informers within the government during the election campaign to provide him with confidential information and advocate heightening existing tensions, if necessary by resorting to assassinations and acts of terrorism in the run-up to the vote.

The HHD distanced itself from Ter-Petrossian in late October, when the party's de facto head Hrant Markarian dismissed Ter-Petrossian's criticisms of the present leadership as too radical and lacking in self-criticism, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on October 30.

In his landmark address of November 1, 1997, analyzing the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict, Ter-Petrossian defined the choice facing Armenia as between "the bad and the [even] worse." Many Armenians who recall the economic collapse they experienced during Ter-Petrossian's presidency and the allegations of spectacular corruption surrounding some of his close associates may now view the upcoming presidential ballot in the same terms.