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Armenia: Race For Presidency Offers New Debate Over Old Taboo

Candidate Ter-Petrossian on the stump in early February (AFP) In many ways, Armenia's presidential election on February 19 is more about the past than the future.

Ten years ago this month, Armenia's first president fell victim to a dismal economic situation and Nagorno-Karabakh. Having served one term and half of another at war with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated province, Levon Ter-Petrossian's calls for compromise were branded "weak" and "defeatist" by his political adversaries.

And with those words, he was gone.

"The government bodies known to you have presented me a resignation demand," Ter-Petrossian said. "Taking into account that the execution of the constitutional power of the president in the situation that has been created could pose serious danger to the stability of the country, I accept that demand and announce my resignation."

At the time, Ter-Petrossian said his resignation was due to "deep problems" connected with what he called "the alternative between peace and war." In short, he told Armenians, "the party of peace and respectful reconciliation has been defeated."

Once Burned

After 10 years in seclusion, where he quietly busied himself in academia, Ter-Petrossian returned to active politics in September to take on two of the men largely responsible for his ouster in 1998.

One of them, Robert Kocharian, is now ending his second term as president. His preferred successor, fellow Nagorno-Karabakh native and current Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, is the second.

Some Frequently Asked Questions about the vote through the eyes of RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller

With his return, Ter-Petrossian significantly altered the political status quo, dominated by Kocharian and Sarkisian. He has also provided new stimulus to one of the most emotional issues in Armenia: Nagorno-Karabakh.

In an interview with RFE/RL on February 17, Ter-Petrossian stood by his view that international mediators' current proposals to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are remarkably similar to their 1997 peace plan, which he strongly advocated and which was rejected as "defeatist" by his political adversaries.

"After having wasted so many years, the current authorities of Armenia have quietly and secretly agreed to a plan that they had diligently presented as defeatist and treacherous in the past," Ter-Petrossian told a rally in Yerevan in October.

The authorities argue that the current plan differs significantly from that plan in that it makes clear that Nagorno-Karabakh's status will be determined through a referendum on self-determination. And harkening back to 1998, Kocharian and Sarkisian routinely accused Ter-Petrossian of "selling" and "betraying" the disputed region 10 years ago to Azerbaijan, and warn that in the event of victory, Ter-Petrossian will "surrender Karabakh."

Ter-Petrossian has countered by accusing Kocharian of complicity in "great conspiracy against the republic of Armenia" by agreeing in 1999 to a land swap with Azerbaijan. The purported deal, according to Ter-Petrossian, would have stripped Armenia of its vital land border with Iran in exchange for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ter-Petrossian backs his claim by saying Kocharian attempted to get then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) to accept the idea in the presence of a U.S. official, just hours before Vazgen Sarkisian and seven other officials were assassinated in parliament in October 1999. Ter-Petrossian alleges Sarkisian rejected the proposed peace deal with Azerbaijan and stormed out of the meeting.

Kocharian, who has campaigned stridently in support of Serzh Sarkisian, strongly denies Ter-Petrossian's allegations about the alleged land-swap agreement.

"I don't swap Armenian land [for] Armenian land," Kocharian told major television stations on February 17. "We have not lost a single square meter [of land] during my presidency."

Tom de Waal, Caucasus editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, calls the accusations "exaggerated," saying they are more a reflection of electioneering than reality.

"This rehearsal of the plans from the past, which the public knows about, they are all coming out in the open.," de Waal says. "Both sides are making rather exaggerated accusations, and both sides accusing the other of trying to sell Armenian interests. And it does very much look like electoral politics, more than the reality of the actual plans."

Competing Visions

Much of the feuding between the two Armenian camps stems from differing approaches to settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that were considered after a cease-fire was reached in 1994.

The so-called "phased" approach -- the advocacy of which played a major part in Ter-Petrossian's ouster -- calls for tackling the issue step-by-step.

Among the issues that would have to be resolved before a settlement could be reached would be ensuring the security of Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian population, the return of tens of thousands of Azeri refugees, and the withdrawal of Armenian forces occupying seven Azerbaijani districts bordering Karabakh.

The "package" solution -- initially backed by Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian -- advocates resolving all outstanding issues in one fell swoop, with the aim of legitimizing Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan.

Aghasi Yenokian, a Yerevan-based political analyst, says that over time, the "phased" approach has emerged as the preferred basis for a solution.

"History has shown that a package solution, as such, does not exist. Ten years have passed since Ter-Petrossian was removed from power. And throughout all these years, every initiative that emerged was based on a step-by-step principle," Yenokian says. "The package solution was impossible, be it from a political or a technical perspective."

De Waal agrees, saying the main difference between the two political camps in Armenia today lies in their general approach to resolving the dispute.

"I think Ter-Petrossian is different in approach, he says that 'this is an issue in which time is not on our side, an issue which we never solved, issue which we have to tackle,'" de Waal says. "And I think this is the important difference, because the others are basically saying, 'Yes, we do want to solve the Karabakh problem, but, basically, we won the war, so let the other side do most of the talking, we are fairly comfortable.'"

This, de Waal adds, is the important distinction: "It's not about the technical details, but about how urgently they think the problem needs to be solved."

The More Things Change...

To some observers, the fact that the past is being so actively revisited during the presidential campaign could signal that the issue of resolving the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh through compromise with Azerbaijan may no longer be a taboo topic in the minds of the Armenian public.

While Sarkisian is still widely considered the front-runner in the race, Ter-Petrossian's ability to attract tens of thousands of people to his rallies suggests that his views on Nagorno-Karabakh are not without considerable support.

But Stepan Grigorian, director of the Center for Globalization and Regional Cooperation in Yerevan, notes that divisiveness on this "very sensitive question" leads Ter-Petrossian to tread carefully.

"Because of all this, in his campaign, Levon Ter-Petrossian, when speaking about the necessity to improve relations with Azerbaijan or the necessity to accept compromises in relation to solving of the Karabakh conflict, does not provide many details," Grigorian says. "Because as soon as he tries to do this, a hostile campaign is launched against him, even though significantly large segments of society are now accepting the idea of compromise."

For de Waal, if the Armenian public appears more open to compromise on Nagorno-Karabakh, it has more to do with Armenians waking up to new realities than to any major shift in their feelings on the issue.

"I think 10 years ago -- when Ter-Petrossian gave his famous press conference, and then published an article called 'War or Peace,' talking about the need to compromise -- there was mass hostility to his ideas, partly because he did not make the case very well. He also said, 'There are only six people in Armenia who understand the Karabakh problem,' which was a statement that was guaranteed to annoy the public," de Waal says. "Ten years later, I don't think things have changed that much, but maybe people are aware that Azerbaijan is going much stronger, their military budget is growing, that they have oil revenues. So I think maybe there is a little more acceptance in Armenia that this is a topic which won't go away, and that we should take another look at it."

De Waal stresses that the establishment of a real peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh is still a distant prospect, as Armenia's and Azerbaijan's positions remain far apart.

"This is a subject which is capable of mobilizing the public like no other issue in both countries," he notes. "So it would be quite dangerous for any leader who wants to make any compromises on this issue. There will be demonstrations on the street, there will be threats. It will be a very, very difficult issue to handle."

(RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report.)

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