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Armenian Ex-President Confirms Comeback Plans

By Emil Danielian and Liz Fuller Ter-Petrossian announces his candidacy in Yerevan on October 26 (Photolur) November 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago today, then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian published a landmark article in which he argued that Armenia's sustainable development hinged on a compromise solution to the Karabakh conflict. At the time, his calls for compromise on Karabakh were branded "defeatist," and led him to step down as president three months later. Now he is back, and seeking to regain the presidency in Armenia's elections in early 2008.

Speaking on October 26 to a crowd of some 20,000-30,000 supporters in Yerevan, Ter-Petrossian confirmed that he plans to run as a candidate in the presidential ballot due in early 2008. The Armenian Constitution bars incumbent Robert Kocharian from seeking a third-consecutive presidential term. But it remains unclear what degree of popular support Ter-Petrossian can count on.

Criticisms Of 'Criminal Regime'

In his 90-minute speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by approving cheers from the crowd, Ter-Petrossian repeated, and elaborated on, harsh criticisms of the current leadership that he made during an impromptu address five weeks earlier at a celebration in Yerevan to mark the 16th anniversary of the 1991 declaration by the parliament of which he was at that time speaker of Armenia's secession from the USSR.

In his September 21 speech -- his first public pronouncement since his forced resignation in February 1998 -- Ter-Petrossian accused Kocharian of presiding over a "criminal regime" that has jeopardized all chance of achieving a settlement of the Karabakh conflict on terms acceptable to Armenia. He branded the current leadership as "an institutionalized mafia-style regime that has plunged us into the ranks of third world countries."

Ter-Petrossian claimed on October 26 that the authority of the current leadership is based on tight control of the security apparatus, the judicial system and electronic media, as well as an "atmosphere of fear." "For them the homeland is a conquered territory or business entity," he charged. Ter-Petrossian went on to accuse Kocharian, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and their inner circle of personally controlling the most lucrative forms of economic activity through direct ownership of business or "state racketeering." "The three main principles of the capitalist or market-based economy have been breached: creating equal opportunities, ensuring fair competition and protecting private property," he said.

"Otherwise, in which other country can an ordinary bus driver get so rich in one or two years that he is able to make tens of millions of dollars in investments not in his native Artsakh [Karabakh] but in the United States of America? Or how can a 25-year-old young man become one of Armenia's 10 wealthiest businessmen just two or three years after graduating from university?” he asked, clearly referring to Sarkisian's controversial brother Aleksandr and Kocharian's son Sedrak.

"In the last five years, the criminal regime has stolen at least $3 to 4 billion from the people," Ter-Petrossian charged. "If that sum had been invested in Armenia, we would have had a qualitatively different country. If it had been invested in Artsakh it would have already been independent."

Ter-Petrossian went on to dismiss as fraudulent official statistics that show the Armenian economy expanding at a double-digit rate for the past six years. He said economic growth has been much slower and has largely resulted from remittances from hundreds of thousands of Armenians living and working abroad. He went on to slam Yerevan-based representatives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for regularly praising the Kocharian administration's economic track record. He claimed that they are well aware of the real state of affairs in the economic sphere but admit it only in their confidential reports sent to Washington.

Coming To Terms With Compromise?

Ter-Petrossian also claimed that Kocharian and Sarkisian now accept the kind of solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh which he advocated in 1997-98 and which they rejected at the time as "defeatist." He reaffirmed the argument elaborated in his landmark November 1997 article "War And Peace: Time for Serious Thought" that Armenia's sustainable development hinges on a compromise solution to the Karabakh conflict. "Until that problem is solved, until the blockades strangling us are lifted, until relations with our immediate neighbors are normalized and until our country is integrated into regional and international systems, Armenia will not be able to develop and become stronger in accordance with the demands of the contemporary world," he said.

Ter-Petrossian disclosed that he originally intended to wait until the eve of the presidential election campaign to announce his candidacy, but changed his mind in the light of the police reprisals against his supporters in Yerevan last week. "From now on, any repression or any act of terror...against my supporters will be deemed a criminal violation of the electoral rights of citizens and will be presented as such to both our public and international bodies," he added to rapturous applause.

Ter-Petrossian played up the role he played in spearheading the 1988 campaign for the transfer of the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast from Azerbaijani to Armenian control. The Soviet authorities responded by arresting Ter-Petrossian and fellow members of the Karabakh Committee in late 1988 and holding them in jail for five months. Within a year of his return to Yerevan, he was elected speaker of Armenia's first noncommunist-controlled legislature, and in October 1991 he was elected president with over 80 percent of the vote. "You understood and trusted me and my comrades from the Karabakh Committee [in 1988], the result of which has been an independent Armenia and a liberated Artsakh. I am absolutely certain that you will understand and trust [me] this time as well."

Mistakes, But Not Lies

Ter-Petrossian also hinted on October 26 that in his further public pronouncements he will admit to mistakes, but insisted that he never lied to Armenians. "I have never hidden the truth from the people, no matter how bitter it is," he said. "I have never given false promises and engaged in populism or demagoguery. And I am not going to betray those principles."

Ter-Petrossian embarked in early August on a series of meetings across Armenia with supporters and sympathizers of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the successor to the Karabakh Committee, and the HHSh subsequently announced its intention of nominating Ter-Petrossian as its presidential candidate. But the HHSh is widely perceived as compromised and enjoying only minimal support. Since then, however, more than two dozen political parties and organizations, including the radical Hanrapetutiun (Republic) opposition party headed by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, have affirmed their backing for a Ter-Petrossian presidential bid, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on October 12.

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