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Armenia: Will Kocharian Channel Putin and Attempt a Comeback?

Former President Robert Kocharian is pondering a political comeback in Armenia. Analysts in Yerevan question whether Kocharian, who served as chief executive for a decade, has enough political clout to re-emerge as a powerbroker. Some politicians, meanwhile, say his re-entry into politics could do more to unsettle than stabilize economic and political developments.

In an exclusive September 30 interview with the Armenian news agency Mediamax, the 57-year-old Kocharian declared that he does “not rule out” a return to what he termed “big politics,” meaning Armenia’s national political scene. Many observers in Yerevan believe the timing of the announcement was connected to the approach of Armenia’s parliamentary elections in the spring of 2012.

Since stepping down as president in 2008, Kocharian -- who now serves on the board of Sistema, a Russian conglomerate that has energy and consumer services holdings -- has kept largely out of the spotlight, making only occasional public appearances. Speculation that the lifelong politician would eventually be drawn back into the public life, however, has always run strong.

Many Armenians believe Kocharian may be trying to emulate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who recently announced his intention to regain the Russian presidency in 2012. If Putin can do it, Kocharian figures he can, too, the thinking goes.

Some analysts, though, trace Kocharian’s statement to domestic events, specifically Armenia’s recent economic decline, and growing tension with Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharian is a native of the independence-minded enclave who, prior to coming to Yerevan, served as the territory’s de facto president.

Once called “the Caucasian tiger” by the World Bank for its double-digit growth rates, Armenia saw its economy shrink by a whopping 14 percent in 2009 as the international financial crisis set in. Economic growth reached just 2.5 percent in 2010. Unemployment officially stands at 6.6 percent, but unofficial estimates put it in the double digits.

“Kocharian seems to play the role of a bogeyman; he shakes his finger at the current and first presidents [Serzh Sargsyan and Levon Ter-Petrosian respectively] as if to say ‘I’ll be back if you do not behave yourselves,’” commented pollster Aharon Adibekian, director of the Sociometer research center. “The situation has taken quite an interesting turn.”

Kocharian listed the lack of an improvement in Armenia's economy among the factors that are encouraging him to return to politics; other factors include interest “by various layers of society” and his own “inner belief” that he could make a difference.

Members of Armenia’s ruling coalition have mixed opinions about the possible contributions that Kocharian could make.

MP Rafik Petrosian, a senior member of incumbent President Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia, said Kocharian could have a debilitating effect. He warned of serious trouble for Armenia’s two-party ruling coalition if Kocharian decided to run for parliament. Kocharian has been friendly with the governing coalition’s other member, the Prosperous Armenia Party (PPA). If the PPA places Kocharian on its slate of parliamentary candidates, “the coalition will be destroyed, and the differences between the parties will deepen,” Petrosian said at a September 30 press conference.

Meanwhile, PPA leader Gagik Tsarukian has asserted that Kocharian “has the full moral and political right” to return to politics.

Political scientist Manvel Sargsian believes that Kocharian has the potential to influence the parliamentary vote’s outcome. “The important thing is what powers Kocharian consolidates around him,” said Sargsian, the director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies. “The situation now is such that a political force demonstrating that it can bring real changes to society will be the winner.”

Since the 2008 presidential election, politics in Armenia has been characterized by the yin-yang behavior of President Sargsyan (Kocharian’s former prime minister and defense minister) and Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s first post-Soviet president who now heads the Armenian National Congress, the country’s largest opposition coalition. The pair’s attempt at dialogue recently stalled, prompting the ANC to launch “non-stop” protests in Yerevan’s Liberty Square.

Public interest in Ter-Petrosian’s recurring protests has waned, yet discontent with Armenia’s economic direction remains strong. This would appear to give Kocharian an opening to cast himself as a viable alternative to the status quo. Ter-Petrosian does not appear worried that such a scenario will unfold. In recent comments, he described Kocharian, whom he appointed prime minister in back in 1997, as “a beaten card.”

Potential voters interviewed by EurasiaNet.org were not as dismissive of Kocharian’s possible comeback, but neither were they enthused. “I can’t imagine what will happen if Kocharian returns,” commented 67-year-old Yerevan engineer Lida Markosian. “I would never want to see him come back, with all his intolerance.”

Markosian was referring to Kocharian’s perceived association with the violent suppression of opposition protests following the 2008 presidential election. At least 10 people died and hundreds were injured during a series of clashes in downtown Yerevan.

Another Yerevan resident, though, took a more positive view of the ex-president, saying that labor migration was not as high under the Kocharian administration as it is now. “At least peoples’ lives were better. Though he was a far tougher leader than Serzh Sargsyan,” the man said.

Speculation aside, the numbers do not bode well for Kocharian. Pollster Adibekian reported that surveys run by his Sociometer center “show that Kocharian’s rating is quite low.” If he wants to carve out a new role in politics, he’ll need help. “Otherwise, he will barely be able to find his place [in politics],” Adibekian said.

Kocharian is unlikely to let polling data and verbal darts influence his choice. “There are … many interesting things in life and there is no limit to self-improvement,” he told MediaMax in a September 17 interview. “Living in [the] present and thinking about [the] future is much more interesting” than focusing on the past, he said.

Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.

Armenia: Will Kocharian Channel Putin and Attempt a Comeback?

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