Armenia: Ex-President Ponders Comeback

The first president of independent Armenia dips his toe in politics after a nine-year retirement.

Armenia: Ex-President Ponders Comeback

The first president of independent Armenia dips his toe in politics after a nine-year retirement.

Thursday, 13 September, 2007
Only a year ago, the idea that former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian might be a serious candidate in next year’s presidential election would have seemed incredible. Now, however, as the countdown to the poll begins, both the press and influential figures have begun actively discussing the possibility of a comeback.

Ter-Petrosian was one of the founders of the movement to have Nagorny Karabakh removed from what was then Soviet Azerbaijan in the late Eighties, and went on to become the independent Armenia’s first president. He was first elected in October 1991, winning 83 per cent of the vote.

For many Armenians, the years of his presidency are associated with the hardships of the severe energy crisis which the country endured during the conflict over Karabakh.

“Under Levon we saw nothing but dark and cold years,” Anahit Khachatrian, a 50-year-old unemployed resident of Yerevan, told IWPR. “Why should we elect Levon? I remember how my children went to school by candlelight and I don’t want those years back again.”

As a result of these problems, Ter-Petrosian’s popularity plummeted, and his standing was further shaken by the presidential election in 1996, when he was elected for a second term despite a damning verdict on the poll from many international observers.

In 1998, he was forced to resign after top ministers, including the then prime minister Robert Kocharian, turned against him over a proposed peace plan for Nagorny Karabakh. Kocharian was subsequently elected president, and his second and final term is due to end next spring.

Since stepping down, Ter-Petrosian lived in semi-retirement until he made a return to public life in July this year, with a series of trips around Armenia on which he was accompanied by activists from the Alternative and Republic parties, as well as from his own Armenian National Movement.

“These are information-gathering visits,” said Vahagn Khachatrian, a former mayor of Yerevan who has been travelling with the ex-president. “Ter-Petrosian wants to understand what people think about the situation that’s developed in the country, to hear their ideas and find out whether some of them think the same way he does.”

Ter-Petrosian has also held private meetings with opposition politicians.

An announcement on whether he will be nominated as a candidate is expected after Armenian independence day on September 21.

There is little reliable information on what kind of support the ex-president might get.

His supporters point to a number of internet surveys in which Ter-Petrosian tops the list of potential presidential candidates. But Gevorg Poghosian, head of the Armenian Sociological Association, cautioned that these surveys are not a good test of public opinion.

“In Armenia only certain sections of society use the internet, such as office workers and the staff of international organisations, who are not numerous,” said Poghosian.

Political analyst Alexander Iskandarian said he believed Ter-Petrosian “is too shrewd and experienced to run as a candidate in an election which is only six months away.”

Iskandarian suggested that such rumours were coming from people who wanted to see Ter-Petrosian run for their own purposes, rather than from the ex-president himself.

However, political analyst Aghasi Yenokian believes the times could be right for Ter-Petrosian to make a comeback, because the country is crying out for an “alternative.”

“If he does run in the election, the political atmosphere in the country will change,” said Yenokian.

The leading official candidate for the presidency at the moment is current prime minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is also head of the Republican Party (not to be confused with the Republic Party), which won a majority of seats in the parliamentary election held in May this year.

Sarkisian will not be the only candidate from within the governing elite. The nationalist Dashnaktsutiun ARF party, which has three ministers in the cabinet, has already announced that it will name a candidate of its own.

Among the declared opposition candidates are Vazgen Manukian, Ter-Petrosian’s one-time ally and prime minister and subsequently his opponent; the leader of the New Times party Aram Karapetian; and the head of the People’s Party, Tigran Karapetian. Another section of the opposition with a strongly pro-Russian orientation is reportedly trying to nominate former defence minister Vagharshak Harutiunian.

Nikol Pashinian, a newspaper editor and one of the leaders of the Alternative movement, believes that the opposition should be looking to Ter-Petrosian as a unifying leader.

“Today Ter-Petrosian possesses the greatest potential, as someone who can unify the opposition,” he said. “No other candidate can bring the same level of unity. And without unity it is impossible to talk about a real victory in the presidential election. He has a very real chance of becoming the agreed [opposition] candidate.”

On September 2, Ter-Petrosian met the two leading opposition candidates from the 2003 poll, Stepan Demirchian of the People’s Party and former Yerevan mayor Artashes Geghamian.

“In Ter-Petrosian I saw genuine sense of concern and responsibility,” Demirchian told IWPR after the meeting. “I believe that his intellect and experience are very much needed for our country. If he stands, Ter-Petrosian will undoubtedly have a strong chance of victory.”

The pro-government media has already begun reminding Armenians of the energy crisis the country suffered when Ter-Petrosian was in power.

On August 20, the Hayots Ashkhar newspaper wrote, “We must warn you that if Ter-Petrosian is a candidate we should all be vigilant. We will all need to take precautions and fill our homes with firewood, kindling, candles and lighter fuel. If you were planning to throw out your old overcoat and woollen socks, don’t! And – most important of all – remember to pass on to your friends that old recipe for fish cutlets for family celebrations.”

But David Petrosian, political analyst with Noyan Tapan news agency, believes the governing elite is not as monolithic as it seems on the surface.

“The oligarchs who were protected by Robert Kocharian will not necessarily want to see Serzh Sarkisian as their new patron,” said Petrosian. “It’s quite possible the governing elite will split if the first president reappears, as Ter-Petrosian is an acceptable figure for some of these people.”

Petrosian said that the public, too, might favour the former president, in large part because they had “no expectations” in the official favourite Sarkisian.

Armen Simonian, a 42-year-old taxi driver said, “The public hates the ruling regime and is disappointed in the opposition, so now is the time for Levon to come back.”

Diana Markosian is a journalist with A1+ television in Yerevan.

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