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Armenia: President's Resignation Leads To Political Crisis

Prague, 4 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian politics has been plunged into crisis by yesterday's resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. But as with all political crises, there is more than meets the eye, and this one promises to be full of twists and turns.

Ter-Petrosyan began his political career ten years ago as a champion of Nagorno-Karabakh's drive for self-determination, riding a wave of nationalism all the way to the Armenian presidency. While in office, he lent his support to successive military campaigns that routed Azerbaijani troops from the ethnic-Armenian enclave and from another 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.

But last autumn, in an abrupt about-face, Ter-Petrosyan declared he was ready to accept an international plan finally to settle the Karabakh dispute. The plan called for major concessions, including an Armenian surrender of occupied Azerbaijani territory and a return of Azeri refugees to the area as a pre-condition to final status negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh.

The reversal caused splits in the Armenian government and last night, as he tendered his resignation, Ter-Petrosyan compared himself to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He told Armenians that, as in Israel, the "party of peace and decent accord" was being forced out of power by the party of war, which, he hinted, was represented by Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and his allies.

Ter-Petrosyan said he was stepping down to avoid destabilizing the country, but he called it just a "temporary defeat." His resignation engendered the mass departure of nearly all his political allies, including parliament's entire leadership. The acting President is now Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, the former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh and the politician who most strongly opposed Ter-Petrosyan's compromise bid on the enclave.

Under the Armenian constitution, new presidential elections must now be held within 40 days and an atmosphere of uncertainty reigns in political circles at all levels in Yerevan.

But observers say that despite the apparent high drama, the events of the past couple of days have more to do with power politics and personal ambition than a fight between parties of war and peace. And despite words of concern in Baku, they and do not necessarily augur ill for the long-term peace process.

RFE/RL broadcaster Hrair Tamrazian says many people in Armenia consider Ter-Petrosyan's position shift last autumn on Karabakh to have been more tactical than heartfelt. Tamrazian says that they explain it as an attempt to win Western backing and establish himself as a statesman during a time of waning popular support at home. That flagging support was fed by a prolonged economic crisis and a belief that Ter-Petrosyan "stole" the 1996 presidential election from opposition candidate Vazgen Manukian.

In any case, Ter-Petrosyan's calculation, if that is what it was, failed. It deepened rifts in the government, encouraging Prime Minister Kocharian and other officials allied behind him to openly express their opposition to his policies. Western leaders also failed to offer their strong back As Tamrazian notes, the West, and in particular leaders of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who have led efforts to advance the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh, understand that Kocharian is the key to resolving the conflict. Kocharian is from the enclave and enjoys the trust of Armenians both inside and outside of Karabakh. If he wished it, Kocharian, rather than Ter-Petrosyan, would be in a better position to act as Armenia's Yitzhak Rabin, says Tamrazian.

And in a hint that this may be what Kocharian is eventually planning, Ter-Petrosyan warned darkly last night that "time will show who did what for Karabakh and who indeed is selling it out."

There are several possible scenarios in the weeks ahead and most observers in Yerevan are cautious about making any predictions. Kocharian, who is ironically not an Armenian citizen, as he is from Karabakh, and has not lived in the country for the 10 years mandated by the constitution, cannot run for president.

One possibility, however, is that defeated presidential candidate Vazgen Manukian could stage a comeback, finally obtaining the office he feels he rightly won in the 1996 elections. Manukian and Kocharian have worked together in the past and could conceivably form a solid governing team. And that could open up a number of possibilities, both for Armenia's political growth and its relations with its neighbors.