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Armenia: Will Murder Allegations Impact On Presidential Vote?

Levon Ter-Petrossian (Photolur) Mutual recrimination has been an integral component of electioneering at least since the elections to the Roman senate in the first century B.C. But while accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency are commonplace, it is exceptional for a candidate openly to implicate one of his rivals in murder, as former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian has done in the run-up to the February 19 presidential ballot.

Addressing a campaign rally on January 24 in Charentsavan, Ter-Petrossian implicated outgoing President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the favorite in the February 19 ballot, in the October 1999 parliament shootings in which a group of disaffected gunmen killed eight senior officials, including then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian.

Two weeks later, on February 9, Ter-Petrossian told tens of thousands of supporters in Yerevan that those two men were killed because of their objections to a U.S.-backed proposal for resolving the Karabakh conflict that would have entailed Armenia ceding its southernmost Meghri district in exchange for formal international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Armenia. Ter-Petrossian claimed that Kocharian, Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian all approved that option.

Such allegations of a connection between the alleged proposed territorial exchange and the 1999 parliament shootings are not new: they were discussed in detail in the August 3, 2000, issue of the Armenian daily "Aravot," and three months later, on November 10, 2000, Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan claimed he had been recently informed by oppositionist Ashot Manucharian that the OSCE Minsk Group, which since 1992 has sought to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, proposed such an exchange to Kocharian. According to Manucharian, Kocharian approved the idea but Sargsian and Demirchian opposed it, whereupon the OSCE co-chairs -- not the Armenian leadership -- engineered their deaths in the parliament shootings.

Senior Armenian officials, including both Kocharian and Oskanian, have made no secret of the fact that a territorial swap was one of various approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict that has been discussed and then abandoned as unacceptable and/or unworkable. Kocharian disclosed in February 2000 that international mediators had again proposed the prospect of a territorial exchange to resolve the Karabakh conflict, and that he discussed that possibility during one of his meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev.

But both Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian subsequently said repeatedly that the Armenian side rejected such a territorial exchange out of hand. On November 22, 2000, then-Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ara Papian was similarly quoted by "Zhamanak" as saying that the OSCE proposed a territorial swap first in 1992 and then in 1999, but that both the Armenian authorities and the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic rejected it on both occasions.

A spokesman for Kocharian rejected Ter-Petrossian's allegation on February 9 as a cheap pre-election ploy. Then on February 13, Oskanian, who has served as point man for the Karabakh peace process since 1997, went on record as affirming that that none of the three draft Karabakh peace proposals submitted by the OSCE Minsk Group to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan since Ter-Petrossian's ouster in February 1998 contained any mention of the possibility of Armenia ceding Meghri to Azerbaijan in exchange for international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian territory.

Oskanian pointed out that the idea of a territorial swap was the brainchild in 1992 of former U.S. State Department analyst Paul Goble, but that what became known as the "Goble plan" never figured officially as a component of any OSCE-drafted peace proposal. Oskanian accused Ter-Petrossian of acting immorally, suggesting that he "will stop at nothing to achieve his political goal of [again] becoming president of Armenia," Novosti-Armenia reported.

There is an element of irony in Ter-Petrossian's attempt to use Sarkisian's purported involvement in the 1999 parliament shootings and his alleged willingness to cede Armenian territory as a means of undermining his credibility with voters. Conventional wisdom has it that it was Ter-Petrossian's conciliatory approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict that motivated Kocharian, Sarkisian, and Vazgen Sargsian to engineer his forced resignation in February 1998, although Ter-Petrossian's former adviser Zhirayr Libaridian implied in his "The Challenges of Statehood" that other factors entirely were behind that decision.

Even prior to Ter-Petrossian's February 9 allegations, Sarkisian warned that unnamed candidates who engage in slander will be held legally responsible once the election is over. But setting aside the moral and legal implications of Ter-Petrossian's statements, the question arises: why did he wait to go public with them until so late in the election campaign?

Two days earlier, Ter-Petrossian filed a formal request with the Constitutional Court to order measures to remove "obstacles" to his campaign activities, specifically the consistently negative coverage of his campaign by major state-controlled television channels. Under the provisions of Armenia's election law, failure to remove such obstacles necessitates the postponement of the election by two weeks.

The Constitutional Court on February 11 recognized Ter-Petrossian's complaint as valid and ordered the "obstacles" to be removed, but declined to order a postponement of the vote, after which Ter-Petrossian flew to Moscow where he reportedly met with top Russian officials. The purpose and timing of that trip is likewise puzzling: is Ter-Petrossian aware of some Russian involvement in the 1999 parliament shootings, and might he have presented Russian leaders with an ultimatum: drop your support for Serzh Sarkisian, or I go public with this damaging material?

Two other factors may have influenced the timing of Ter-Petrossian's trip to Moscow: a fire during the night of February 8-9 badly damaged the top two stories of the Armenian Justice Ministry building, including much of the evidence and records from the investigation into the parliament shooting. Firefighters called to extinguish the blaze made only token efforts to do so, an eyewitness told RFE/RL.

And second, February 9 was the last day on which any of the nine registered presidential candidates could step down and pledge their support for another. Despite rumors that he would do so, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian failed to pull out of the race and endorse Ter-Petrossian, although RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as saying on February 11 that he might still do so on February 15 or 16.

It remains unclear how, eight years after the event, Ter-Petrossian's allegation of Sarkisian's partial responsibility for the parliament shootings will resonate with those voters who are still undecided. Ter-Petrossian's rival candidates, almost without exception, have focused primarily in their campaign statements on the need to eradicate corruption, raise living standards, and create new jobs, issues that are presumably closer to the hearts of much of the electorate than unsubstantiated allegations of murder and willingness to cede Armenian territory.

Finally, even if widely held suspicions that Armenia's current elite fully intends to rig the outcome of the ballot to ensure the transfer of presidential power from Kocharian to Sarkisian are unfounded, some members of that elite may have been so angered by Ter-Petrossian's allegations that they might intervene in the process of vote tabulation to ensure that the official election results show minimal support for him.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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