After nearly a decade of self-imposed political retirement, Armenia's former President Levon Ter-Petrosian is seeking a return to power. His decision, anticipated for months, renders the outcome of an upcoming presidential election unpredictable. During the biggest opposition rally held in years, Ter-Petrosian urged Armenians on October 26 to help him thwart what he portrayed as the handover of power from President Robert Kocharian to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. He accused the two men of leading a "gangster state" that stifles dissent and free enterprise. The development is a further indication that the 62-year-old scholar, who led Armenia to independence from the Soviet Union and earned accolades in the West for his conciliatory line on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, will be Sarkisian's main election challenger. The latter's victory in the presidential ballot, due next February or March, was seen by many as a foregone conclusion after his governing Republican Party won last May's parliamentary elections by a landslide. [For details, see EurasiaNet's Armenia: Vote 2007]."From now on, I declare myself a candidate for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia," Ter-Petrosian told about 20,000 people who gathered in Yerevan's Liberty Square.His 90-minute speech, repeatedly interrupted by "Levon! Levon!" chants, offered a damning indictment of the Kocharian administration's policies and track record. A large part of it was devoted to what Ter-Petrosian called the "relentless plunder" of the population by Kocharian, Sarkisian and their political associates. "In the last five years, the criminal regime has stolen at least $3 billion to $4 billion from the people," Ter-Petrosian alleged, without offering specifics to substantiate the claim. He indicated that officials enjoy a de facto monopoly over the most lucrative economic sectors, and receive informal payments from businessmen with close ties to the government.Ter-Petrosian went on to dismiss as grossly inflated the double-digit rates of economic growth reported by the Armenian authorities in recent years. He reaffirmed his belief that Armenia's sustainable economic development is impossible without a solution to the Karabakh conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And he again alleged that the Kocharian administration prefers the Karabakh status quo to cutting a compromise peace deal with Azerbaijan.Ter-Petrosian resigned in 1998 under pressure from his key cabinet members, including then Prime Minister Kocharian and Interior Minister Sarkisian, who resented his strong support for an international peace plan that called for a gradual settlement of the conflict, rather than for a package peace plan. The ex-president pointed to the government's overall acceptance of peace proposals that resemble his earlier ideas as a sign that his position was correct. Other sensitive areas were also raised. The Yerevan rally was held the day before Armenia marked the eighth anniversary of the 1999 armed attack on parliament that resulted in the deaths of former parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, former prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), and six other officials. Many Armenians think that the five gunmen had powerful sponsors; some suspect Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian of masterminding the shootings. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].Ter-Petrosian likewise pointed the finger at Kocharian, blaming the latter for the bungled criminal investigation into the parliament attack. "The October  massacre was the main milestone that cleared the broad way to the formation and development of Kocharian's regime," he said. Neither Kocharian, nor Sarkisian immediately commented on the allegations. Speaking to journalists several hours before the Ter-Petrosian rally, the Armenian president shrugged off his predecessor's presidential ambitions. "The first president, at least according to the latest surveys, is not the main opposition candidate and there are at least two or three opposition figures with higher approval ratings," he said in televised remarks. "I am convinced that our people will not want to return to 1995-1996," Kocharian added, accusing Ter-Petrosian of "ruining" the Armenian economy during his rule. Armenia's Gross Domestic Product shrank by more than half in 1992-1993 following the Soviet collapse and the onset of the war in Karabakh, leaving the country largely cut off from the rest of the world and paralyzed by a severe energy crisis. While Ter-Petrosian is still widely associated with the resulting hardship, the strong attendance at the October 26 rally suggests that many disaffected Armenians are now ready to at least listen to their former leader. His harsh attacks on the current government, voiced in a characteristically academic manner, appeared to impress many undecided rally participants. "Before the speech I was dithering, but am now astonished," said one young man. "I've never heard such a speech before. He spoke with the precision of a machine."Vasil Khanaghian, a disabled Karabakh war veteran from a village in southern Armenia, made up his mind before the rally. "I won the war under the leadership of Levon, and not those rascals," he explained, referring to President Kocharian and Prime Minister Sarkisian. But not everyone in the crowd was convinced. One elderly man, who did not want to give his name, was unhappy with Ter-Petrosian's failure to talk about controversial episodes from his own presidency such as the flight of his "thieving" former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian, who left Armenia in 2000 to avoid prosecution for murder.Ter-Petrosian loyalists, meanwhile, are increasingly buoyed by their leader's return to active politics. "If this momentum is maintained during the election campaign, his victory will become inevitable," Aghasi Yenokian, a local pundit sympathetic to the ex-president, told EurasiaNet.Opposition leaders, many of whom have been in talks with Ter-Petrosian for months about his return to politics, argue that the government is increasingly ill at ease with the prospect. On October 23, police detained a dozen pro-Ter-Petrosian activists, among them two newspaper editors, who were publicizing the planned demonstration in downtown Yerevan. They were released the next morning after four-hour negotiations between Ter-Petrosian and senior police officers. The activists had decided to take to the streets after none of Armenia's leading TV stations loyal to Kocharian agreed to broadcast paid rally advertisements. One regional TV channel, which aired a September speech by Ter-Petrosian that was his first in a decade, now claims to be harassed by security and tax officials. Transportation was also reportedly restricted between Yerevan and other parts of the country hours before the landmark rally. In an October 25 editorial, the pro-opposition Yerevan daily Aravot argued that the Armenian authorities were far more tolerant of dissent in the run-up to the May parliamentary elections than in the current presidential campaign. "They either find the upcoming elections more important, or are scared of Levon," it said.
Emil Danielyan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.