2231) Levon Ter-Petrossian: To Be The Phoenix?

In an op-ed I wrote before the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia, I maintained that the way the elections would be conducted would show the level of the current Armenian regime's commitment to democracy and reform. But more important than this trait, I said, was the regional significance of the elections. The parliamentary composition to emerge would not only serve as a pivot for the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process but also for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. . .

The subsequent developments with regard to the conduct of the elections were promising. In its final report (September 2007), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that the elections “demonstrated improvement and were conducted largely in accordance with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections,” although the intention stated by the Armenian authorities for free and fair elections “was not fully realized” and some issues remained unaddressed.

The election results, however, were not as auspicious. The new parliamentary composition was largely dominated by non-conciliatory parties, the Republican Party of Armenia being on the one side and Prosperous Armenia, a party established last year by Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman with close ties to President Robert Kocharian, on the other. While the former received 34 percent of the vote, 15 percent of Armenian voters cast their ballots for the latter. With 13 percent, these two parties were followed by the ultra-nationalist ARF-Dashnaktutyun.

The presidential elections

It is actually in this regard that the forthcoming presidential elections are of grave importance. After two terms, Kocharian is constitutionally barred from running again. For this reason, just recently he gave the nod to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian as his “preferred” successor. The old fox Sarkisian, who served as defense minister from 1993 to 1995, national security minister from 1995 to 1996 and interior minister from 1996 to 1999, is a politician firmly controlling Armenia's security services.

Just recently a challenge to Sarkisian has come from Levon Ter-Petrossian, a former president of Armenia who is widely believed to be the only viable alternative to the current ruling elite and the only opposition candidate capable of contesting the election against Sarkisian. At an opposition rally staged in Yerevan's Liberty Square in October, Ter-Petrossian announced that he will run in next year's presidential elections. He then called on the opposition parties to join his “growing popular movement against the Kocharian-Serzh bandocracy” and warned them “not to enter the elections with fragmented ranks.” Yet, the opposition leaders' approach to his idea of a unified candidate has been mixed. While some like Stepan Demirchian and Aram Sarkisian support his nomination, others like Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian are reportedly trying to distance themselves from Ter-Petrossian's campaign.

Normally, the salvo of counter-attacks by the ruling elite was not late in coming. Soon after Ter-Petrossian announced his intention to run in the presidential elections, Armenian Public Television broadcasted a news story showing archival footage of “the cold and dark years,” as described by Kocharian, under Ter-Petrossian's administration. In turn, Ter-Petrossian responded with accusations about Kocharian's assumed role in the Oct. 27, 1999 assassinations in parliament. The focal point of the election campaigns and fiery discussions, however, will undoubtedly be the prospects for a resolution to the Karabakh dispute.

Regional repercussions of elections

Ter-Petrossian says Armenia needs to end its regional isolation by normalizing its relations with both Azerbaijan and Turkey and unless Armenia manages to end the blockade, it cannot develop and strengthen. He then concludes, “As a result of the criminal policies of the current government, Azerbaijan has only toughened its position and will not seek compromise.”

Actually, it was Ter-Petrossian who spearheaded the unofficial Karabakh Committee that was founded in early 1988. More ironically, he was forced to resign in 1998 by his key ministers led by then Prime Minister Kocharian, as well as Sarkisian, for advocating an international peace that called for a gradual resolution of the Karabakh dispute. His policies of the time were seen as conceding too much to Azerbaijan.

Is he now really sincere, or in fact more sincere than Kocharian and his comrades-in-arms? According to a Radio Free Europe report, the Azeris do not think he is. They believe that the United States may back Ter-Petrossian's bid in the hope that he would adopt a more pro-Western position and help to undercut Russia's influence in the South Caucasus. They further fear the possibility that Washington might exert pressure on Baku to accept an imposed solution to the Karabakh conflict.

One of the reasons why Turkish-Armenian relations could not improve is related to the fact that Yerevan has carried on its occupying policy towards Azerbaijan. Thus, a resolution to the Karabakh dispute is of grave importance for the future of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation as well. During his speech at the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in October, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian stated that Turkey's pre-condition on Karabakh for the normalization of bilateral relations is “unacceptable,” since this was supposedly “a bilateral problem between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” In response to this argument, one feels compelled to ask him why he seeks other countries' support for Turkey's opening the border.

This is indeed an issue very often touched upon by our Western friends. I am frequently asked why Turkey insists on supporting Azerbaijan and why Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh are mortgaging Turkey's policy options. Would it not be more realistic to open the borders with Armenia, at a time when Turkey is aspiring to become a member of the European Union? I encounter such questions very frequently, but find them rather naive. It is like asking the U.S. why it supports Israel. In turn, I really wonder whether anyone from those Western circles that consistently exert pressure on Ankara to open its borders with Armenia have ever seen the miserable living conditions of the gackins, the Azeri refugees from Armenian-occupied lands, over the last 15 years.

In such a milieu, could the possibility of Ter-Petrossian's election indeed represent the light at the end of the tunnel? To be honest, I doubt it. But he would definitely be much better than Kocharian and Sarkisian.

Dec 5, 2007