Armenian Ex-President Mulls Dramatic Comeback

Emil Danielyan

EurasiaNet, NY
Aug 30 2007

Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s former president widely acclaimed in
the West for his conciliatory line on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,
is considering returning to active politics and, in particular,
contesting a forthcoming presidential election. His comeback would
mark a dramatic turn in the unfolding presidential race which the
Armenian authorities hope will formalize a planned handover of power
from President Robert Kocharian to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.

The issue has dominated the Armenian political discourse and press
commentary for the past several weeks.

Sarkisian’s chances of succeeding Kocharian received a massive boost
when his Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) swept to a landslide victory
in last May’s parliamentary elections. The crushing defeat suffered
by the country’s fragmented opposition led to suggestions that the
outcome of the Armenian presidential ballot, due early next year,
is a forgone conclusion.

Ter-Petrosian allies now say that the 62-year-old former president
is the only politician capable of defeating Sarkisian. They point to
his domestic and international stature and policy agenda which they
regard as the recipe for ending Armenia’s regional isolation.

Skeptics believe, however, that Ter-Petrosian is too unpopular to
return to power as many Armenians continue to associate him with
severe socioeconomic hardship of the early 1990s.

A historian and philologist by training, Ter-Petrosian rose to
prominence in 1988 as one of the leaders of a popular movement for
Armenia’s unification with Nagorno-Karabakh, then part of Soviet
Azerbaijan. The movement gradually embraced a pro-democracy and
pro-independence agenda, ousting Soviet Armenia’s last Communist
government in parliamentary elections held in 1990. A year later,
less than three months before the break-up of the Soviet Union,
Ter-Petrosian was elected the country’s first president with more
than 85 percent of the vote.

Much of that popular support was gone in the next few years, following
the outbreak of a bitter war with Azerbaijan for Karabakh and armed
conflicts elsewhere in the South Caucasus. The conflicts effectively
cut off Armenia from the outside world, causing its economy to
shrink by more than half in 1992-1993 and leaving a large part of
its population jobless. The economic collapse was compounded by a
severe energy crisis which meant that most Armenians had electricity
for only a few hours a day for several consecutive years.

Many of them blamed their post-Soviet leadership for their suffering,
dismissing its assurances that they are paying the price of the
Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan.

Ter-Petrosian’s perceived aloofness and tolerance of growing government
corruption is believed to have been another factor behind the popular
anger. The reversal of his fortunes was further exposed in September
1996 when he sent tanks to the streets of the capital Yerevan to
quell violent opposition protests against the official results
of a reputedly rigged presidential election that gave victory to
Ter-Petrosian. Sixteen months later he was forced to step down by key
members of his administration, notably then Prime Minister Robert
Kocharian and Interior Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who opposed his
advocacy of more concessions to Azerbaijan. The hardliners openly
disagreed with his belief that Armenia’s economic development is
impossible without a Karabakh settlement.

Ter-Petrosian has rarely spoken in public since then. He reportedly
considered participating in the last presidential election held in
2003 but decided to continue his self-imposed retirement. Earlier
this summer, the reclusive ex-president began touring various regions
of the country and meeting local activists of his Armenian National
Movement (ANM) party behind the closed doors. The meetings, which are
still going on, have reportedly focused on his participation in the
upcoming presidential vote, with ANM activists pleading with him to
enter the fray.

According to members of Ter-Petrosian’s inner circle, he hears similar
calls from various politicians, businesspeople and even government
officials who they say visit his Yerevan house on a practically daily
basis. Also visiting Ter-Petrosian in late August was Rudolf Perina,
the US charge d’affaires in Yerevan. Neither Ter-Petrosian, nor the
US Embassy released any details of the meeting.

"He is thinking about running for president very seriously, more
seriously than he did in 2003," a longtime close associate of
Ter-Petrosian told EurasiaNet. "But he has not yet communicated his
decision to us."

ANM leaders have already predicted that his answer will be positive.

"I am confident that Ter-Petrosian will run," the chairman of the
former ruling party, Ararat Zurabian, told reporters on August 17.

His deputy Aram Manukian said separately that Ter-Petrosian will
announce that decision "in the second half of September." He said
the ANM is holding consultations on the issue with "various political

Apart from the ANM, only Armenia’s most radical opposition party,
Republic, and several other, smaller opposition groups have publicly
voiced support for Ter-Petrosian so far. None of them is represented
in the Armenian parliament, though. The two opposition parties that
won seats in the National Assembly are led by ambitious individuals
who have long been harboring presidential ambitions and are therefore
unlikely to throw their weight behind Ter-Petrosian. Those parties as
well as other opposition heavyweights, some of whom were at loggerheads
with the ANM government, have sounded lukewarm about his comeback.

Analysts believe that the key question for Ter-Petrosian is whether
he can make a strong showing in the election. Even some of his ardent
supporters feel that he still lacks sufficient popular support. Aram
Abrahamian, a former Ter-Petrosian spokesman who now edits the Yerevan
daily Aravot, warned in an August 21 editorial that painful memories of
the early 1990s still hold a powerful grip on Armenians’ consciousness.

Similar arguments have also been made by representatives of the
government camp who seem, at least in public, untroubled by the
prospect of Ter-Petrosian challenging Sarkisian for the Armenian
presidency. Galust Sahakian, a senior RPA lawmaker, said on August
15 that a Ter-Petrosian comeback would force the ruling party to
change its electoral strategy. "But the outcome will be the same,"
Sahakian told a news conference, predicting a Sarkisian win.

Ter-Petrosian loyalists counter that many Armenians have reconsidered
their negative attitudes towards their first president and now
rate him more highly than their current rulers. They also claim
that Ter-Petrosian enjoys the hidden backing of many members of the
country’s post-Soviet government and business elite who owe their
fortunes to him and are unhappy with Kocharian and Sarkisian. As
his associate interviewed by EurasiaNet put it, "If Ter-Petrosian’s
electoral chances are slim, then why is he now the number one topic
of conversations in Armenia?"

Editor’s Note: Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and
political analyst.