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Review & Outlook - 11/01/2007

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LEVON TER-PETROSSIAN: A BLAST FROM THE PAST OR A MILD FORM OF NOSTALGIA?

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 1, 2007

By Asbed Kotchikian


The announcement of Armenia's only former President Levon Ter-Petrossian
that he is a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections raised
many speculations about the election process and at the same time ended
other speculations regarding the nature of those elections before
Ter-Petrossian announced his candidacy. Before the announcement that he
is a candidate on October 26, media and political observers in Armenia
considered the presidential race as a one-man show where the election of
the current Prime Minster Serge Sargsian was a done deal, however now
the speculations and the bets have changed considerably as any observer
of Armenian politics and media would concur.


THE RETURN OF THE KING?

Ter-Petrossian's October 26 announcement came at the footsteps of months
of speculations as whether he would announce his candidacy or not.
During that period many opposition figures in Armenia held their breath
as Ter-Petrossian had meetings and consultations with various political
groups - not least surprising of which was a meeting with representatives
of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) at the latter's
headquarters in Yerevan. The point of these meetings - according to
Ter-Petrossian - was to feel around and see the overall mood in the
country before committing himself to a presidential race where the
outcome was already (pre)determined.

The start of Ter-Petrossian's consultations were interesting in that he
chose to tour the countryside and meet with citizens in various
communities, perhaps knowing that the votes in Yerevan and the suburbs
were already saturated and voters were already wooed, committed or
bought by the existing alliances. Considering that almost half the votes
in Armenia are outside of the capital, Ter-Petrossian's decision to
start his `campaign' in the regions rather than the capital shows a
carefully calculated strategy and is far from being `impulsive'.

The exploratory meetings that Ter-Petrossian had with citizens outside
of Yerevan was at the same time coupled with meetings in Yerevan with
representatives of the business community - not the upper level
`oligarchs' as they are known in Armenia - in an attempt to assure the
business community that his return would not, in any way, hinder
business practices and investments in the country. This in turn led the
leader of Prosperous Armenia, Gagik Tsaroukian - an influential
businessman and an adamant supporter of President Kocharian - to announce
in early October that his party will support Serge Sargsian in his
presidential bid in February 2008 regardless of Ter-Petrossian's candidacy.


ACTIONS AND REACTIONS

Ter-Petrossian's announcement for his candidacy had many reactions by
the ruling administration. Perhaps the most important development was
Armenia's support of a Russian proposal to curb the presence of
Western observers during elections in Russia and Armenia, along with 5
other pro-Russian countries. While in reality this action might have
more to do with Armenia's foreign relations and its compliance with
Russia, its impact on the February elections is monumental as to the
chances for irregular and unfair voting practices, which can occur
unreported and unchecked. It is highly doubtful that the Armenian
government had Ter-Petrossian in mind while supporting this Russian
initiative, rather it ended up being an added advantage to safeguard
the outcome of elections in Armenia.

Even before the official announcement by Ter-Petrossian, President
Kocharian has been vocal in his criticism of his predecessor's
ambitions to be his successor by not missing any opportunity to remind
people that Armenia under Ter-Petrossian was under very poor
socio-economic conditions and that Ter-Petrossian's return would
trigger the decline of Armenia's good performance under his tenure.
This, coupled with decreased coverage by state-owned and controlled
media on political activities in the country, are definite signs of
Kocharian's anxiety that Ter-Petrossian might have a chance to upset
his post-presidency plans.

Similarly the ARF was also vocal in criticizing Ter-Petrossian's
criticism of the current administration for being oligarchic, corrupt
and void of any political vision to guide Armenia. The ARF criticism
came after representatives of the party met with Ter-Petrossian in the
weeks before the latter's announcement of his candidacy and describing
the meeting as constructive talks even if they do not agree with the
former president's policies. Having said this it should be noted that
unlike the state media, the ARF media was more balanced in covering
Ter-Petrossian's rallies and meetings refraining from derogatory
name-callings.

Perhaps more important than what is being said is what isn't said,
especially by Prime Minister Sargsian. Although some members in his
party, the Republican Party of Armenia, expressed their doubts that
Ter-Petrossian's candidacy is a challenge in any way, Sargsian is yet to
make any public statements about Ter-Petrossian. One explanation for
this is that unlike Kocharian, Sargsian had been closely associated with
Ter-Petrossian and his administration in the early and mid-1990s and any
criticism of the former president might be used against Sargsian as well.

At a popular level, the reactions on Ter-Petrossian's candidacy have
been mixed. While his rally in Freedom Square gathered more people than
the Square has seen in the last 4 years (anywhere between 15-30 thousand
depending on the sources), the fact remains that many people are still
influenced by the analogy made by Kocharian that the return of
Ter-Petrossian would be synonymous with the return of dark days of
Armenia. Furthermore the arrest and harassment of Ter-Petrossian
supporters in the last couple of weeks are also indicators that the
authorities in Armenia are weary of Ter-Petrossian's ability to mobilize
people hence resorting to legal and political means to curb his rallying
attempts.


THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

In assessing the current political landscape in Armenia, using
adjectives such as `good' or `bad' is counterproductive, mostly because
what is `good' for one is `bad' or `not good' for another. However the
issues that Ter-Petrossian is bringing up as his campaign platform
resonate well with many of the opposition leaders who for over five
years have been unable to unite to face the Kocharian administration.

Several things that can be labeled as `good' for Ter-Petrossian's
candidacy is that unlike many of his former political contemporaries,
having been in self-imposed political isolation has saved him from being
a repetitive `rebel'. If one compares Ter-Petrossian with Vazgen
Manukian (a former ally and later an opponent of Ter-Petrossian) for
instance, one could see that Manukian has lost his `charm' mostly
because he has not been able to generate new ideas to capture voters.
Ter-Petrossian on the other hand, merely because of his silence, has not
been `tainted' and his speeches could feel like a breath of fresh air in
an otherwise repetitive political lexicon and speeches. This does not
mean that what he has to say will be `good' or `bad' rather it will be
different and that might capture the attention of many voters.

The accusations against Ter-Petrossian, specifically the arguments
that during his tenure many of the woes of the republic were
established, is one method that the state media has been mentioning
repeatedly. This in turn could have a negative turn because while it
might be true that the foundations of oligarchy were put in place
during Armenia's first government, its continuation and development
thrived under the second government. This is one aspect of the `ugly'
part of the current political situation where name-calling and blaming
each other could be easily transformed into clashes by supporters of
the two presidents, seriously challenging and undermining the
democratic processes in the country.


WHAT TO EXPECT?

Unlike what many people think, Ter-Petrossian's chances for being
elected are neither `very high', as viewed by his supporters, nor
`negligible', as his opponenets maintain. To be able to make any
assessments there are various factors that one needs to consider not
least of which include the way Ter-Petrossian will run his campaign,
the alliances he will or is willing to make and more importantly the
message that he has to pass to the citizens.

Since speculations seem to be the norm there could be several ones
made based on the discussion above. One approach could argue that
Ter-Petrossian could manage to group all - or at least most - of the
opposition parties behind him and become a serious challenge for
Sargsian's candidacy and might end up being the other candidate in the
second round of elections, given that the authorities allow a second
round to occur which is ironic since it will be a reminiscence of the
1996 elections where Ter-Petrossian `won' the elections with
irregularities during the first round. In such an event Ter-Petrossian
would be able to show himself as a viable candidate and orchestrate a
comeback into politics even if that means that he won't have any
political position.

In an event that Ter-Petrossian comes in third (or worse) most probably
that would mean the end of his political activism since that could be a
reality check for him that he is not as popular as he thinks he is. In
such a scenario, the former president might revert back to his hermit
intellectual life and once and for all retire from politics. It is
highly doubtful that Sargsian might offer Ter-Petrossian any position if
he becomes the president in which case not having any political leverage
the fate of Ter-Petrossian political life would be doomed.

In the unlikely - but not impossible - event of Ter-Petrossian becoming
president the political earthquake that might ensue could revamp
Armenia's domestic landscape with major reforms and more importantly an
interesting check and balance situation between the executive and
legislative branches of the government. Unlike what people in and
outside of Armenia think, Armenia's foreign policy priorities might only
change piecemeal since there are already processes which are in motion
and they would be very difficult to undo.

Unlike the reports that Azerbaijani and Turkish media have been
optimistic about Ter-Petrossian's return to power, it is highly
doubtful that Ter-Petrossian would have a conciliatory position on the
issue of Nagorno-Karabakh since that was the issue that brought his
presidency to an abrupt end in the first place.

At the end of the day speculations remain just speculations. In Armenia
where a party could become a major ruling coalition partner months after
it was created, political forecast and analysis is more of a game of
backgammon rather than chess where chance is as important as strategy.

Ter-Petrossian's candidacy was a much needed jolt (`good' or `bad'
depends on the reader) to make Armenia's politics more interesting for
observers and provide more choices to the electors. The next couple of
months would be interesting and as the election day nears, more possible
scenarios and speculations could unravel as more people express their
opinion on this issue.

One thing is important: the choice should be the citizens' and the
term `serving as president' needs to justify itself by the next
president serving the people rather than ruling them.


--
Dr. Asbed Kotchikian is lecturer of political science and international
relations and the assistant director of international affairs program at
Florida State University. He could be reached at akotchikian@fsu.edu

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