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Ter-Petrosian Unlikely To Seek Reelection Without Broad Opposition Support

Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s reclusive former president, is unlikely to
stand in next February’s presidential elections unless he builds a broad
opposition coalition around his candidacy, according to some of his close
associates. Ter-Petrosian, they say, is now ascertaining whether he is popular
enough to mount a serious challenge to Robert Kocharian, the incumbent president
who forced him into resignation more than four years ago.

“I think that he will run for president if he feels that he enjoys the
support of a broad range of political forces,” a former senior government
official, who is a member of the ex-president’s inner circle, told RFE/RL this
week. “He believes that he should join the race only if he has very good chances
of success.”

Stepan Grigorian, a senior member of the Armat faction of Ter-Petrosian’s
Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) agreed, saying: “If he makes such a
decision, he will definitely not rely on only one political force.”

It was HHSh leaders that fueled speculation about Ter-Petrosian’s imminent
political comeback two months ago amid lingering uncertainty over the pool of
opposition candidates capable of scuttling Kocharian’s reelection plans. One of
them, former national security minister David Shahnazarian, told reporters late
last month that he believes Ter-Petrosian will be a presidential candidate.

But other politicians familiar with the 57-year-old former president’s
thinking are more cautious in their predictions.

“No political decision has yet been taken on his participation in the
elections,” said Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrosian’s former press secretary who
remains one of his closest advisers. “In my opinion, Ter-Petrosian is not the
kind of person who would try to return to power with uncertain prospects.”

The former president, Zurabian explained, wants to be sure that there is a
“public demand” for his return to active politics. “I think that the society, or
at least a certain part of it, has started to reconsider those political
solutions which Ter-Petrosian had proposed. But it is difficult to say just how
far this process will go.”

This incertitude reflects the continuing lack of confidence among Armenia’s
former leadership in its ability to win back the hearts and minds of the people.
Ter-Petrosian was unpopular when he quit office in February 1998, still reeling
from his highly controversial reelection in September 1996. The economic
collapse of the early 1990s, accompanied by a surge in government corruption,
was enough to discredit his regime. Even the military victory over Azerbaijan in
the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict did little to soften the public disillusionment
which was used by Kocharian in his rise to power.

Whether the past four and a half years have restored public sympathy for
independent Armenia’s first president is not clear. Ter-Petrosian has rarely
appeared in public and consistently avoided contacts with the media.

Comments made by his top loyalists indicate that he now hopes to form a large
alliance comprising the country’s leading opposition groups. Many of them were
bitterly opposed to Ter-Petrosian when he was in power. Winning their support
will not be an easy task.

The former official close to Ter-Petrosian admitted that the latter will have
great difficulty rallying the Armenian opposition around his candidacy. “I think
it would be better for him to see someone else take on that role,” he said. He
at the same time claimed that opposition heavyweights such as Hanrapetutyun, the
People’s Party and even Artashes Geghamian’s National Accord are potential
Ter-Petrosian backers. The ex-president’s entourage also hopes to win over the
Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans and part of the disgruntled
state bureaucracy and security apparatus.

While being uncertain about their chances of success, Ter-Petrosian allies
are convinced that their leader’s return to power is a window of opportunity for
Armenia to ensure its economic development and long-term security. They will try
to capitalize on the fact that the lot of ordinary Armenians has hardly improved
under Kocharian’s rule. Nor has endemic corruption declined. On the contrary,
the personal wealth of many representatives of the “former regime” now pales in
comparison with that of the current rulers. The latter control more lucrative
sectors of the economy than their predecessors did.

The former Armenian leadership continues to emphasize its belief that rapid
economic development is impossible without a resolution of the Karabakh
conflict. A belief which cost Ter-Petrosian the presidency after his key
ministers led by Kocharian revolted against the idea.

The infighting centered on a Karabakh peace plan proposed by international
mediators in September 1997. The plan, accepted by Ter-Petrosian and Azerbaijan,
called for a “phased” settlement of the conflict which would postpone an
agreement on Karabakh’s status, the main stumbling block. That was to be
preceded by the return of most Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories around
Karabakh and the lifting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia.

Kocharian and the then defense minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, found the plan too
risky. They instead insisted on a “package” agreement that would settle all
contentious issues in a single peace accord. More importantly, both men claimed
that the Karabakh conflict is not the main obstacle to Armenia’s economic
recovery.

The former ruling HHSh and his allies believe that the past four years have
proved Ter-Petrosian right. In Zurabian’s words, the phased peace agreement
remains the most realistic one as the Armenian and Azerbaijani positions on
Karabakh’s status are presently irreconcilable. Zurabian, expressing the
dominant view in the Ter-Petrosian camp, claimed that the Kocharian
administration is simply not interested in peace with Azerbaijan. The Armenian
president, he said, relies on an oligarchy of “extreme nationalist parties,” the
hardline military elite and government-connected businessmen

oriented towards the domestic market. All of them have much to lose from the
conflict’s resolution and the resulting opening of borders, according to
Zurabian.

Ter-Petrosian’s views on Karabakh may be the reason why Western powers are

showing interest in his political comeback. Over the past two months
Ter-Petrosian has held two separate meetings with the ambassadors of European
Union member countries and the United States. Sources have told RFE/RL that the
diplomats asked whether he will run for president but were not given explicit
answers.

Whether the West wants Ter-Petrosian’s return to power is by no means
certain. After all, Kocharian has not rejected any of its peace proposals since
taking office. Still, Western powers may feel that Ter-Petrosian would make it
easier for them to find a mutually acceptable solution. Some pro-Kocharian media
have already renewed their allegations that he is intent on “selling out”
Karabakh.

The ex-president’s allies, meanwhile, are playing down the significance of
possible external assistance to Ter-Petrosian, saying that he only needs the
support of his people.

Armat’s Grigorian said Ter-Petrosian’s comeback would not necessarily result
in his participation in the presidential elections. He said Ter-Petrosian can
also play a crucial role in consolidating a dozen center-right parties
supporting him. Most of them are splinter groups that had split from the HHSh in
the past. Their leaders have for months negotiated on the possibility of joining
forces ahead of the parliamentary elections due in May 2003. Politicians
involved in the talks say that little progress has been made so far.

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