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Armenia: Former President Mulls Political Comeback

Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia's reclusive former president, is seriously considering a return to politics more than four years after being forced into resignation by key ministers led by Robert Kocharian, the current president. The two men, who have differing views on how to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, may again cross swords in presidential elections due next February.

Yerevan, 8 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- According to close associates of Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia's first post-Soviet president is now trying to ascertain whether he is popular enough to run in next year's presidential elections, scheduled for 19 February. Ter-Petrosian is reportedly looking into the possibility of forming a broad opposition alliance to mount a serious challenge against Robert Kocharian, the incumbent president.

Levon Zurabian is Ter-Petrosian's former press secretary and remains one of his closest advisers. Interviewed this week by RFE/RL, he said: "No political decision has yet been made on his participation in the elections. But it does not mean that such a decision should be ruled out."

Other politicians familiar with the ex-president's thinking indicated that Ter-Petrosian is unlikely to run in the elections unless he succeeds in rallying the country's leading opposition groups in support of his candidacy. In the words of Stepan Grigorian, a senior member of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the former ruling party: "If he makes such a decision, he will definitely not rely on only one political force. He would rely on a broad circle of political and public forces."

Ter-Petrosian's emergence from political oblivion would mark a significant development in Armenia's political life. The 57-year-old former leader was forced to step down in February 1998 after advocating additional concessions to Azerbaijan in the resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

His key ministers, led by then-Prime Minister Kocharian, refused to accept a peace plan on Karabakh put forward by international mediators in September 1997. The plan, accepted by Ter-Petrosian and Azerbaijan, called for a "phased" settlement of the conflict which would postpone an agreement on Karabakh's status, the main stumbling block.

That agreement was to accompany the return of most Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh and the lifting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia.

Kocharian and then-Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian found the plan too risky. They instead insisted on a "package" agreement that would settle all contentious issues in a single peace accord. More importantly, both men said that the Karabakh conflict was not the main obstacle to Armenia's economic recovery, as was claimed by Ter-Petrosian and major Western powers.

The former ruling HHSh and its allies believe the past four years have proved Ter-Petrosian right. The economic situation in the impoverished country has not improved markedly. Despite several consecutive years of growth, the Armenian economy remains hamstrung by the lack of foreign investment and high transportation costs resulting from the economic blockades.

Zurabian and other top Ter-Petrosian loyalists argue that the phased peace agreement remains the most realistic one, as the Armenian and Azerbaijani positions on Karabakh's status are presently irreconcilable. They claim that the current authorities in Yerevan are not interested in resolving the Karabakh dispute because they have much to lose from a change of the status quo in the region.

The claims are firmly denied by the Kocharian administration, which blames Azerbaijan for the deadlock in the peace process.

It was HHSh leaders that fueled speculation about Ter-Petrosian's imminent political comeback two months ago. That possibility appears to have aroused the interest of major Western powers that have praised and backed the former Armenian leadership in the past for its more conciliatory Karabakh policy.

Ter-Petrosian has recently held two separate meetings with the ambassadors of European Union member countries and the United States. Sources close to the ex-president have told RFE/RL that the diplomats inquired whether he will run for president but were not given definite answers.

It is not certain either the U.S. or EU is hoping to see Ter-Petrosian return to power. After all, since taking office, Kocharian has not rejected any of the peace proposals drafted by the American, French, and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group on Karabakh.

Still, Western powers may feel that, with Ter-Petrosian back in power, it would be easier for them to find a mutually acceptable solution. Some pro-Kocharian media have already renewed their allegations that he is intent on "selling out" Karabakh.

Ter-Petrosian's entourage, meanwhile, is playing down the significance of possible external assistance, saying that he only needs the support of his people. One former senior government official close to Ter-Petrosian told RFE/RL that the former president will join the February 2003 race "only if he feels that he has very good chances of success."

This uncertainty reflects a continuing lack of confidence among Armenia's former leadership in its ability to win back the hearts and minds of the people. Ter-Petrosian was unpopular when he quit office, still reeling from his highly controversial re-election in September 1996. The economic collapse of the early 1990s, accompanied by a surge in government corruption, was enough to discredit his regime.

Even the military victory over Azerbaijan in the 1991-94 war for Karabakh did little soften the public disillusionment, which was used by Kocharian in his rise to power.

No wonder that former presidential spokesman Zurabian always stresses that Ter-Petrosian wants to be sure that there is a "public demand" for his return to active politics: "I think that the society, or at least a certain part of it, has started to reconsider those political solutions which Ter-Petrosian had proposed. But it is difficult to say just how far this process will go."

Nor is it known whether the past 4 1/2 years have restored public sympathy for the man who ruled Armenia for eight years. Since his resignation, Ter-Petrosian has rarely appeared in public and has studiously avoided contact with the media.

Judging from the comments made by his top loyalists, he now hopes to drum up support from Armenia's leading opposition groups. Many of them were bitterly opposed to Ter-Petrosian when he was in power. Winning their support will not be an easy task.