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Armenia: Analysis from Washington -- Ter-Petrossian Lost Popular Support

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The resignation of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian this week highlights the limits of international pressure on countries with democratic political systems and the dangers inherent in ignoring those limits.

Under pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group -- led by Russia, France, and the United States -- Ter-Petrossian had been forced to accept the so-called Lisbon principles for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

Although Ter-Petrossian himself sometimes violated democratic norms, his grudging acceptance of those principles cost him the support of his own government and people. It forced his resignation. And it brought to office Robert Kocharian, someone less susceptible to international pressure and less sympathetic to the Lisbon principles.

Those principles, read out by the chairman at the OSCE summit in 1996, call for the restoration of Soviet-era borders, broad autonomy for ethnic Armenians in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and international guarantees of such a settlement.

While many have repeatedly invoked these principles as settled OSCE policy, they were in fact never formally adopted by that body.

Yerevan at the time refused to give consensus, arguing that they failed to take into account its own interests and facts on the ground.

As Ter-Petrossian made clear at that time, Armenia could never agree to compromise the fate of the Armenians of Karabakh by forcing them to accept the restoration of Azerbaijani control of that disputed enclave.

As his government made clear, Armenians were being asked to concede their victories in the field with little to show for it except Azerbaijan's promises that it would respect the autonomy of Karabakh in the future.

And neither he nor other Armenians placed much faith in the notion that the international community would in fact provide any effective monitoring of any settlement that might be reached.

Instead, they feared that the international community would with time turn away from this issue out of deference to Baku and its enormous oil wealth and because of a sense that the Karabakh situation was no longer a pressing issue.

But in the months since the 1996 summit, the leaders of the Minsk group put ever more pressure on Ter-Petrossian to agree with their ideas.

Ter-Petrossian frequently countered by pointing out that neither his government nor his electorate could support them.

And he noted that the international community in the form of the Minsk group was putting all the pressure on Armenia, allowing Azerbaijan to obtain at the settlement table something it had been unable to achieve in the field.

But with each round of visits by Minsk group diplomats, Ter-Petrossian moved ever closer to the Lisbon principles, a shift that won him praise in the chancelleries of these countries but cost him support at home.

The popularity of Ter-Petrossian in these foreign capitols was evident in the comments of world leaders after his fall from office. But his unpopularity at home is the reason he fell. Ter-Petrossian clearly recognized this danger and sought to limit it last year by appointing Karabakh leader Robert Kocharian as his prime minister.

Although politically clever, that move bought Ter-Petrossian only a little time. Moreover, it meant that Kocharian who opposes the Lisbon principles could mobilize Armenian opinion against the policies of his president.

Kocharian did that with skill and abandon and the result is that Ter-Petrossian is out of office, and Kocharian is now acting president.

On the one hand, that change at the top in Armenia may introduce a certain clarity in any future talks about a settlement of the Karabakh dispute. No one can doubt where Kocharian stands, and an appreciation of that may lead to more serious talks. But on the other hand, the change in Armenia carries with it a broader lesson: international pressure on leaders of democratic, or even democratizing countries -- however well-intentioned -- may quickly become counterproductive if it fails to take into account popular attitudes there.

Ter-Petrossian was prepared to go along with the Minsk group. As he said in his resignation speech, he was the leader of the party of peace in Armenia. But in an important sense, the Minsk group was not prepared to go along with him.

The Minsk group did not take into account Armenian popular attitudes. It did not appear to many Armenians to be even-handed in its dealings with the parties to the conflict. And it did not provide Ter-Petrossian with the concessions he needed to remain in power.

As a result, Ter-Petrossian is out of office. The Minsk group program is at best on hold. And the dangers of a renewed conflict in the region are far greater than they were before his departure.