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Armenia: Former President Makes Political Comeback

Levon Ter Petrosian

In what can be considered one of the most important political developments in the short 16-year history of Armenia as an independent former-Soviet republic, the country's first president, Levon Ter Petrosian, announced his intention to run again for office in the presidential election to be held early next year. Ter Petrosian had been forced to resign in 1998 by his successor and other high-level officials apparently over what was then considered a concessionary peace deal to resolve the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh.

What is most significant about Ter Petrosian's political comeback is that had anyone asked most Armenians about the former president's return as recently as two months ago, many would consider that it was unlikely. Now, a day after an opposition rally during which Ter Petrosian announced his candidacy, it is a reality. However, while various media outlets sympathetic towards the former president estimated the crowd at the rally to be between 20-40,000, bloggers such as Observer reckoned it was more like 10,000.

Transitions Online's The Armenian Patchwork also put the number at around 10,000, and in a post containing many photographs explains why.

The hope of the people gathered on Freedom Square on 26 October to cheer for Levon Ter-Petrosyan came true as he announced that he will run for presidency again in 2008. The joint rally of oppositional leaders Aram Sargsyan, Stepan Demirchyan and first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan gathered around 10,000 people, enough to cover the whole square. A simultaneous concert half and hour away from the Freedom Square was a contrast to this event.

[…]

Despite the number of people present I could hardly see any youth among the crowd, and here is where they were. At the same when the rally began, at 1700, the Voske Ashun (Golden Autumn) concert began in the Vazgen Sargsyan stadium, which is said to have been organized by the ruling Republican Party.

Observing from afar, Unzipped says that it sounds as though the rally was a great success considering the amount of apathy and cynicism prevalent in Armenian society. The blog also says that from speaking to friends in Yerevan the mood at the rally was one of hope. However, as someone who has already blogged about Ter Petrosian dashing the hopes of many Armenians in the 1990s, the blogger has some words of advice for Ter Petrosian and also sounds a note of caution.

[…] if I were to meet Levon, I would say to him: “Do not be arrogant. It does not suit you.” You were first elected as people’s president. You were ‘one of us’ – well, at least that’s how the majority perceived you. However, in few years you became arrogant, kind of self-isolated and intolerant to dissent voice. I quite like the fact that you were holding meetings with various political parties, even those that you shut down during your term of presidency. However, I’d like to get assurances that the practice of political dialogue will continue if you were to be elected as President.

[…]

To be honest, while I am glad that it seems we are to witness an exciting presidential campaign, there is something inside me that makes me feel worry. Call it intuition or whatever, I have those weird feelings that something bad may happen. Too much is at stake to those who are in power now if they to lose it via democratic elections. On the other hand, Levon came out to win, and any other outcome will not be ‘acceptable’ to his supporters. I hope nothing bad will happen, I really do. I hope we won’t witness violence and blood. I feel unease… I want to get rid of these feelings, but I do not know yet how…

Given that Ter Petrosian is considered to be the only candidate able to contest the election against the current prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, it is no wonder that the government is acting in a way that can only be considered “worried.” Indeed, reported Nazarian and The Armenian Observer last month, the government-controlled media is already airing black propaganda aimed at discrediting Ter Petrosian. The second blog, written by a media professional in Armenia, now raises concerns about the state of journalism in the country.

One day before the rally by Armenian opposition, where the Ex-President of the Country – Levon Ter-Petrossian, now a probable presidential candidate for the 2008 elections is going to make a speech, Haylur reporter Tatevik Nalbandyan has gone on the streets of Yerevan – asking people’s opinion about the Former president.

Interestingly, although there are generally two quite opposing views in the country about the former President, with some seeing him as the only viable alternative to the current ruling elite, the material has been designed like an anti Levon Ter-Petrossian propaganda piece, showing only negative opinions, and not a single reference to the other side.

Needless to say, that this falls far below the criteria of objective journalism, and is especially worrying, because it was broadcast by the Public TV of Armenia, which is supposed to serve the public interest and reflect the Armenian society as a whole, and not just the ruling elite and its supporters.

Levon Ter Petrosian

In earlier posts, the Armenia Election Monitor 2008 blog also reported on apparent pressure put on the broadcast media not to cover election-related stories, and also that one regional TV station which did cover Ter Petrosian's first speech in nearly a decade late last month is under attack from the government.

Following on from the previous post detailing concerns about access to the media in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election in Armenia, RFE/RL reports that one regional TV station has already found itself in hot water after broadcasting last month’s speech attacking the government by the first president, Levon Ter Petrosian.

The Gyumri-based Gala TV’s Executive Director apparently aired the speech after being paid to do so by Ter Petrosian’s backers and despite warnings not to do so by the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR).

The Armenian Observer provides readers with an update on what looks like politically motivated scrutiny of the finances of the Gyumri-based GALA TV.

Levon Ter Petrosian

Meanwhile, the Armenia Election Monitor 2008 blog covers the media reaction to yesterday's ally, but also reports that a senior Western diplomatic figure said that next year's election is likely to be held on 17 February. The blog also examines the impact that Ter Petrosian's candidacy will have on Armenia especially after a series of “colored revolutions” that have followed falsified elections in other post-Soviet republics.

After the meeting I ran into a prominent representative of, shall we say, a rather significant diplomatic mission in Armenia. Over a beer he wondered how the meeting went although he didn’t seem as interested as you might expect given that Ter Petrosian will undoubtedly hope to rely on Western support for his candidacy, especially if the election is rigged. To be frank, it is that support which was considered crucial in “democratic revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and just one reason why Armenia has not followed suit.

[…]

Nobody else is thinking in those terms yet, of course, but anyway, the diplomat agreed that Ter Petrosian is the only possible opposition candidate able to contest the election against the prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian […]

In addition to photographs posted by Anush on The Armenian Patchwork, the Armenia Election Monitor 2008 blog also posts a number of photographs from the rally and concludes that next year's election “looks set to be quite unlike any other.”

Levon Ter Petrosian

All photographs © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2007

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