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Karabakh Issue Colours Armenia Poll

Return of former president breaks political consensus on resolving the conflict.
The future of Nagorny Karabakh has not previously been a contentious issue in the domestic politics of Armenia in recent years, but now it is being bitterly debated in the presidential election campaign, thanks to the return of the stage of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian.

On the campaign trail, supporters of Ter-Petrosian and his rival, the official candidate Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, are trading accusations of “sell-outs” in their respective negotiations with Azerbaijan to resolve the disputed territory’s status.

Former president Ter-Petrosyan stepped down in 1998 after coming under pressure from a group of ministers including his successor as president, Robert Kocharian, and Sarkisian, who opposed his tactics for resolving the conflict with Azerbaijan.

There is normally an almost full consensus on the Karabakh issue in Armenian politics, and election campaigns focus instead on domestic issues such as the economy and corruption.

This campaign has proved to be the exception.

Vahan Hovannisian, who is running as a candidate for the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, diverges from the other eight contenders by asserting that there can be no negotiations with Azerbaijan until it signs a non-aggression pact with Armenia .

The main difference between the others is that Ter-Petrosian says that time is working against Armenia in the Karabakh dispute and settling it needs to be a priority.

Kocharian and Sarkisian have accused Ter-Petrosian of wanting to “surrender” Karabakh in 1998. These allegations have not been precisely worded, but the implication is that Ter-Petrosian was willing to compromise on the sovereignty claimed by Nagorny Karabakh.

Opposition member of parliament Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation of the president), a critic of Ter-Petrosian, said the former president’s return to the political scene had rekindled the debate on Karabakh.

“The defeatist attitudes which were characteristic of the previous governing regime and which were the reason why it left office in 1998 have led to the issue of conflict resolution coming to the fore again, as this same administration is rearing its head again and is has not changed its position on Karabakh,” he said.

Ter-Petrosian’s supporters would vigorously deny that he has a “defeatist” attitude. At one rally, the candidate spoke in detail about the need to make a deal with Azerbaijan and change the status quo. He has said that time is not on Armenia’s side in the dispute.

Political analyst Aghasi Yenokian said, “It’s natural that with the return [of Ter-Petrosian] to politics, the issue is being raised again. It’s only Ter-Petrosian who expresses a real readiness to settle the Karabakh conflict. All the other candidates would, if elected, continue the current policy and postpone a resolution.”

On February 9, Ter-Petrosian raised the stakes with his opponents by directly linking the Karabakh issue with the most traumatic event in recent domestic political history, the murder of eight prominent politicians in parliament in October 1999.

At a rally on Yerevan’s Freedom Square, Ter-Petrosian claimed that in autumn 1999, Kocharian, Sarkisian and current foreign minister Vardan Oskanian had been ready to sign a deal to exchange the southern Meghri region of Armenia for Nagorny Karabakh and the adjoining Lachin district.

Meghri stands between Azerbaijan to its exclave territory Nakhichevan, while Lachin connects Armenia and Karabakh. The idea of a swap has been dubbed the “Goble Plan” after the American scholar Paul Goble who first suggested it.

On the same day, the Haikakan Zhamanak newspaper which is supporting Ter-Petrosian’s election bid published the text of an unofficial document produced by the American, French and Russian co-chairs of the Minsk Group - the mediators in the dispute – in autumn 1999, in which the first point states that Meghri should be exchanged for Lachin.

“I am making public a fact that has been hidden for ten years - a great conspiracy against Armenia - which Kocharian, Sarkisian and Oskanian have always denied,” Ter-Petrosian told the crowd which listened in absolute silence. “This is the question of exchanging of Meghri for Lachin, through which Armenia would have lost its 35-kilometre border with Iran. Today this conspiracy has been exposed.”

The candidate then went on to make an even more explosive allegation, linking this plan with the attack of October 27, 1999, in which eight leading politicians including the then prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian and speaker of parliament Karen Demirchian, were killed.

“This document will be the most important clue to solving the October 27 [murders],” said Ter-Petrosian.

“This conspiracy failed thanks to two people – Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Sarkisian, who exposed the plot at a session of the security council, and paid the highest price for it, their lives.”

The Kocharian administration moved quickly to dismiss Ter-Petrosian’s allegations, with presidential press secretary Viktor Soghomonian calling the claims “an electoral gambit”.

“The radical opposition, having exhausted all attempts to discredit the authorities, has begun talking about this alleged peace plan,” said Soghomonian. “This started in 2002. In actual fact we are talking about the so-called ‘Goble Plan’ which was never a topic for discussion in the negotiations over Karabakh. It’s obvious that today’s publication has the aim of heading off a new discussion about the very peculiar approach that ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosian took to resolving the conflict.”

Following the shootings in parliament, Kocharian said he had rejected the idea of a territorial exchange. Speaking on television in February 2000, he said there had indeed been a plan to exchange land but “this was not accepted by me”.

Foreign minister Oskanian angrily rejected Ter-Petrosian’s statements on the Karabakh issue.

“What Ter-Petrosyan is doing is a cheap pre-election trick, this is immoral. And when he tries to relate his statements to the terrorist act in the Armenian parliament, it becomes clear to me that Ter-Petrosyan will stop at nothing,” said the minister.

Tatul Hakopian is a commentator on Public Radio in Armenia and correspondent for the New York newspaper The Armenian Reporter.

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