- Global Voices - https://globalvoices.org -

Armenia: Return of the King President

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Armenia, Citizen Media, Elections, Photography, Politics, Protest

Levon Ter Petrosian Rally

Levon Ter Petrosian, Opposition Rally, Liberty Square, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia

Without a doubt, the most significant event this winter has been the return of the first president, Levon Ter Petrosian, to the political scene in Armenia. Resigning in 1998 and living virtually as a recluse, Ter Petrosian came out of self-imposed retirement on 21 September [1] — the 16th anniversary of Armenia's independence — to launch a blistering attack on the government and his successor as president, Robert Kocharian. Most observers took the criticism as indication that Ter Petrosian intended to again run for office.

On 26 October, at his first public rally [2], he confirmed such speculation by declaring that he would indeed run [3], but not everybody was happy. While considered an educated and formidable politician and statesman, many Armenians still hold Ter Petrosian responsible for the dire economic situation they found themselves in during the early to mid-90s when electricity shortages were commonplace, and corruption and cases of political persecution sky-rocketed.

In 1996, it is widely believed that the presidential election which secured his second term in office, was falsified.

In the wake of opposition protests following the '96 election, Ter Petrosian sent the tanks out onto the streets of Yerevan and opposition activists were persecuted and harassed. No wonder then, that not only did many expect the first president to account for his time in power, but they also demanded it. A rally staged Friday in the capital's Liberty Square was billed with that intent [4]. Unzipped sets the scene [5].

Friends report from Yerevan that there are leaflets all over the capital inviting people for a (second) mass rally by ex-President and presidential hopeful Levon Ter-Petrosyan on 16 November. The main expectation of people who plan to go to the rally is that Levon at last will answer to the criticism over his period of presidency. They hope to hear his reflection over such issues as corruption, 1996 presidential elections (which many consider was a green light to all subsequent election frauds), Karabakh and so on. People expect and hope. Will Ter-Petrosyan deliver? We have to wait and see.

Even those opposed to Ter Petrosian's return such as Raffi K at Life in Armenia were intrigued [6].

Today is the 2nd Ter-Petrossian speech at the Opera (tonight). I don’t know if I’ll go – most the people I know who have gone have been rubberneckers, not supporters, and I am not sure I want to contribute to the swelling of his supposed ranks with rubberneckers. However, he is supposed to provide an explanation for his shortcomings today, which would be quite interesting – though I’m not sure I’d understand all the academic Armenian.

Levon Ter Petrosian Rally

Opposition Rally, Liberty Square, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia

Setting the scene for the event, and inadvertently adding to the intrigue, the government did all they could to disrupt the meeting [7]. An open-air pop concert scheduled for the next day in the same location, even though such events are unheard of in the winter, meant a huge stage erected would take up a significant amount of space. The concert was sponsored by the Yerevan municipality and the ruling Republican party of the main government candidate for next year's election, prime minister Serzh Sarkisian, as Unzipped explained [8].

Election period is the best for Armenian pop music loving crowd, more specifically youth, and it is officially started. We've seen it during parliamentary elections. We've already seen an introduction for presidential elections on 26 October.

This Saturday, just a day after ex-President Ter-Petrosyan 2nd rally, there will be an open-air free concert in Opera square (Freedom sq) with invited pop stars from Russia, including Dima Belan. Formally, concert is organised “for students”. However, it is sponsored by Yerevan mayor and Republican party.

“You go do your rallies, we will do concerts. Now see who will have more numbers.” […]

As it was, however, the stage was used by Ter Petrosian and his political allies as The Armenian Patchwork explains [9].

Once again opposition parties supporting the candidacy of Levon Ter-Petrosyan for president organized a rally on 16 November.
Ter-Petrosyan spoke from the stage on Freedom Square, from which Russian singer Dima Bilan and Armenian singers would perform the next day, a concert sponsored by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia.

The crowd reached more than 10,000 […]

Khachatur Sukiasian, Opposition Rally, Liberty Square, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia

Local multi-millionaire businessman Khatchatur Sukiasian, also known as Grzo, was subject to tax inspections due to his support for the former president [10]. Ironically, it has been frequently alleged that Sukiasian has evaded taxes during his time at the top of the pile under Ter Petrosian. His family is also reportedly related by marriage to former Minister of the Interior Vano Siradeghian still wanted by Interpol for masterminding several political assassinations [11] in the 1990s.

A few days before the event, a youth activist from a minor political party, — the Democrat Hnchakian Party (SDHK) — was beaten by masked men while distributing anti-Sarkisian leaflets in a district of Yerevan. The Armenian Observer decried both the beating and the nature of the leaflets [12]. Pro-Ter Petrosian and opposition activist Aramazd even reported that some leaflets advertising the rally were being systematically removed or defaced [13] by government supporters, but despite the added publicity such tactics offered to the opposition, turnout at Friday's rally was little more than the previous one.

Even if the organizers put the number at 85,000, a figure impossible to achieve in Yerevan's Liberty Square, Reuters reported 12,000 while Radio Free Europe said 20,000. Bloggers, however, put the number at 10-15,000, but nonetheless said the gathering was impressive even if far smaller than the 50,000 recently reported in neighbouring Georgia [14]. Even bloggers, such as The Armenian Observer, who have been highly critical of Ter Petrosian said that the speech by the first president was inspirational [15].

The crowd [responded] to the speech very enthusiastically, at least in the tight center where I was standing, and for a moment I felt inspired and elated. I felt, that it’s great after all, that Ter-Petrossian decided to come back – the political struggle has become so much more interesting by that. LTP is definitely much more charismatic and a better speaker then any of the politicians in the opposing camp – and today I felt for the first time ever, that he might actually have a chance of winning, because compared to him, Serge Sargsyan seems dull and weak to say the least.

Although not present at the rally, Unzipped was also pleased that Ter Petrosian finally addressed some outstanding accusations and criticisms [16] of his time in power. Ironically, however, his greatest regret was bringing the current president and prime minister to Armenia from their native Nagorno Karabakh, the mainly Armenian-populated self-declared but unrecognized Republic in neighbouring Azerbaijan. The current favorite to take over from the current president is the prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian.

“Seeing the latest steps by Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian, I am increasingly convinced that I need to repent and ask for absolution,” he told about 20,000 people who gathered in the city’s Liberty Square. “Therefore, I belatedly but sincerely apologize to you for bringing Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian to Armenia and foisting them upon you.”

“If I made mistakes in my staffing policy – and I really did – this is the biggest one. In fact, this is not a mistake but a disaster which I inflicted on our people. So help me rid you of that disaster,” he added, drawing cheers from the crowd.

[…]

My initial impression is that the speech […] “contained a long-awaited critical analysis of his track record in government”. People may agree or disagree with what he said. But importantly, for the first time, he faced up his past in public and, overall, delivered expectations of the rally. His speech contained other important statements too which may be crucial in shaping up further developments in pre-election Armenia. Once more Levon proved that he is the one who is setting the ‘theme’ for the election campaign.

With three months left before the 19 February 2008 presidential election in Armenia, The Armenian Observer rightly concludes that Levon Ter Petrosian is now shaping up to be the main opposition candidate aiming to contest the vote against the prime minister [17]. Given the dynamics of Armenian politics, the race is now likely to get very heated and potentially volatile. Moreover, with the objectivity of the media in Armenia questionable, bloggers are taking on a very crucial and important role.

And while there might not be many posts on the election for now, what is lacking in terms of numbers is more than made up in terms of quality. Photographs of the 2008 presidential election in Armenia to date are here [18].

All photographs © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2007.

Levon Ter Petrosian Rally

Hovannes Hovannisian, Opposition Rally, Liberty Square, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia

Levon Ter Petrosian Rally

Stepan Demirchian, Opposition Rally, Liberty Square, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia

Levon Ter Petrosian

Levon Ter Petrosian, Opposition Rally, Liberty Square, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia