Armenia: The Teflon President

Opposition parties accuse Robert Kocharian of untold number of wrongdoings - to no avail.

Armenia: The Teflon President

Opposition parties accuse Robert Kocharian of untold number of wrongdoings - to no avail.

President Kocharian has vowed to stand for re-election in two year's time, in the face of growing opposition calls for him to step down.

A campaign against the president, which has been gathering of momentum over recent months, peaked on September 27 when 10,000 people, attending a rally in central Yerevan organised by the opposition Republic party, demanded Kocharian's resignation.

Three weeks before, opposition parties, who have accused the head of state of all manner of wrongdoings and crimes over the last two years, mounted an unsuccessful bid to impeach him.

Their failure, some observers say, highlighted the fragmented state of the opposition and Kocharian's unerring ability to emerge unsullied no matter what his opponents throw at him.

Kocharian has said little publicly about the latest round of opposition baiting, only confirming that he intends to stand again in the 2003 elections. He knows that he has little to fear from the fractious opposition. Unable to forge an effective alliance, they are split into tiny parties wary of each other and keen to pursue their own agendas.

The public too is under no illusion about the opposition and its prospects. "People who follow political developments in this country," said Yerevan taxi-driver Pogos Mantashian, "can easily see that it's farcical for the opposition to say Armenia will become a paradise when Kocharian leaves politics."

In recent weeks, three opposition parties managed to settle their differences in an attempt to set in motion Kocharian's impeachment. The Republic party, led by former prime minister Aram Sarkissian, joined forces with two other leading opposition groups, the Peoples Party and the National Unity party, in calling for the president's dismissal.

The only elements binding them is their opposition to Kocharian, especially his willingness to negotiate a peace settlement with Azerbaijan over the continuing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Some also believe he was involved in the 1999 shootings in the Armenian parliament when eight deputies were killed. But the claims seem largely based on the fact the assassinations eliminated two of Kocharian's major rivals - then prime minister, Vazgen Sarkissian, and parliamentary speaker, Karen Demirchian.

The two men had formed an opposition coalition whose general election campaign earlier that year was dominated by criticism of Kocharian's plans to exchange territories with Azerbaijan as a means of resolving the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh.

Though they have refrained from making direct allegations, Aram Sarkissian (brother of the murdered Vazgen) and Stepan Demirchian of the Peoples Party believe Kocharian has at least been involved in a cover-up.

The opposition impeachment bid began with the National Unity party chairman, Artahes Geghamian, reading out a statement declaring that the "the removal of the Kocharian regime and the formation of a legitimate government is the main precondition for the development of the country". He stressed that the opposition alliance would pursue its aims by constitutional means.

Besides alleging that Kocharian had sabotaged the inquiry into the 1999 shootings, the statement went on to accuse the president of violating the constitution, condoning terrorism and "precipitating deep political, moral, psychological, and socio-economic crises".

Quite a list, but Kocharian has little to fear, unless the opposition feel they can wear him down with repeated attacks. The three opposition parties hold under 20 seats in the 131-seat National Assembly and they would need the support of at least two-thirds of the parliament to call for an impeachment. Already, other opposition parties have turned down the opportunity of joining those intent on forcing the president to resign.

The National Liberation Front, whose head, Asot Manucharian, is a vitriolic political opponent of the president, is one of those who've dissented, and its exclusion underlines the lack of cohesion on the opposition benches.

Manucharian has said outright that it was Kocharian's differences with Sarkissian and Demirchian which lay behind their deaths, and he has also been heavily critical of the administration's policy on Nagorno-Karabakh.

"The Armenian authorities are following a short-sighted foreign policy," said Manucharian, in relation to Yerevan's pursuance of a peaceful resolution to the Karabakh crisis. He describes it as a policy of appeasement which is bound to have grave consequences.

With so much lack of trust among opposition parties, it is hardly surprising that they have failed to engineer much support among the public, who, while critical of Kocharian, believe the president has achieved far more than his predecessor Lev Ter-Petrossian. Unemployment has gone down, the media is far more independent and political freedoms are greater.

At the same time, there is no one competent enough to contest the presidency at the moment and Kocharian is deft at playing his opponents off against each other.

The recent tensions in Armenian politics shouldn't be seen as a serious threat to Kocharian but rather as an early start to elections two years off. Until then, it remains to be seen whether the opposition's "psychological warfare", as one Yerevan academic calls it, has any effect on the president.

Petr Magdashian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan

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