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 forces."
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?"
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.