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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 firstname.lastname@example.org