Commentary: Prospects of a Kocharian Comeback

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenia’s electoral atmosphere is heating up as the parliamentary election date gets nearer. Next May, Armenia will hold parliamentary elections, which will prove to be a litmus test for the presidential election in 2014. Speculations abound in the news media about possible realignments in the political spectrum.

One major question is hanging over all the discussions and speculations: Would former President Robert Kocharian throw his hat into the ring? Before completing his second term as president, Mr. Kocharian had indicated that he did not wish to become the youngest retiree in Armenia, leading to wild speculations.

After all, politics and politicians in Armenia walk in lockstep with Moscow. Kocharian’s master, Vladimir Putin, made his future political plans all too obvious when he handpicked Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him. As the latter’s term was nearing its close, Medvedev himself proposed Putin as candidate for the next presidential election.

Robert Kocharian certainly wishes to emulate Putin in Armenia. That is why he was very frank when asked about his future plans. He cited three conditions for his comeback: “1. Should economic stagnation continue to deteriorate the prospects of improving the social conditions, which, in turn, further increases emigration; 2. Demand by different strata of society for my return to big politics and 3. My personal conviction that I will be able to bring radical change to the situation.”

These are broad prospects to be able to measure in any meaningful way, and therefore they are open to various interpretations. Since the number of votes still do not determine the outcome of the elections in Armenia but only the plans of the people counting the votes, Kocharian certainly may have a chance for a comeback. Only the interaction of political forces and the formation of coalitions may frustrate his plans.

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That is why when asked if Kocharian can run as a presidential candidate in the upcoming election, the head of the Prosperous Armenia Party (Parkavaj Hayastan) Gagik Zaroukian, answered bluntly that Mr. Kocharian has all the moral right to run. Since that party has served as a front for Kocharian’s power base, news media began to speculate that the ruling coalition is falling apart. The Prosperous Armenia and Republican parties together control the current parliament.

Arthur Baghdassarian’s Country of Laws Party (Orinats Yerkir) is a minor partner in the ruling coalition. Baghdassarian has a cozy place in the present coalition, since he has no chance to be re- elected if his party tries to run independently. During the last elections he duped the electorate, running as an opposition candidate and he split the opposition votes, and after the election he switched sides and joined the ruling coalition. You cannot deceive people all the time.

To dispel rumors and speculations, Mr. Zaroukian recently came up with a clarification that the agreement signed between the Republican and Properous Armenia parties last February 17 was still in force, and he blamed the media for manufacturing artificial crises between the coalition partners, whereas highplace officials in his party made public statements about the party’s plans to run independently in the elections, fueling those speculations.

As far as Kocharian candidacy is concerned, the former president comes with a heavy baggage of liabilities, the least among them being the rumors that during his presidency one of his sons built a personal fortune of $10 billion. Even if the figure is 90-percent exaggeration, it is still a tremendous amount of money to amass in a poor country like Armenia.

Mr. Kocharian may be convinced that he can bring radical change to the plight of the people, but the voters may ask, why didn’t he use that magic during his presidential tenure of 10 years?

Also, heavy clouds hang on Mr. Kocharian’s credibility. One is the October 27 massacre in the parliament 10 years ago, which was not fully investigated, and whose direct beneficiary was Kocharian himself. The other case is the March 1 incident, which claimed 10 victims. That was a liability that he bequeathed to then President-Elect Serge Sargisian.

The greatest handicap of course for a Kocharian comeback is the incumbent president, who does not seem willing to yield his position.

Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has been testing the ground for a possible return of Mr. Kocharian.

The political group which benefited most during Kocharian’s presidency was the Dashnak (ARF) party, which is positioning itself in Armenia’s political spectrum with obvious nostalgia.

Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party (Jarangoutioun), which flirted last time with Levon Ter-Petrosian’s HAK opposition coalition without joining in the end, is gravitating towards the ARF. Ter-Petrosian certainly still holds a grudge against Hovannisian for his inconclusive political flirtation last time. Ter- Petrosian himself and his lieutenants are still calling for early parliamentary elections and for President Sargisian’s resignation, which do not seem likely to happen. Even the opposition is convinced that those are slogans to lull the opposition block during the rallies.

In one of his recent speeches, Ter-Petrosian extended an olive branch to Gagik Zaroukian, who did not take the bait.

In the meantime, the president is struggling to keep his coalition in tandem, sometimes even trampling on certain established principles, like extending the same rank and courtesy to the Supreme Spiritual Head of the Church and Catholicos Aram I. It looks like every aspect of Armenia’s life is being politicized. The principles trampled today for political expediency may not be restored tomorrow.

Prime Minister Tigran Sargisian’s remark drew fierce reactions from different parties; he had indicated that those who do not side with the Republican Party, will be on the losing side.

The president has certainly an uphill battle in front of him and recent shocks are not helping that struggle; within a week two key resignations shook the political stability of the government. The first one was the Yerevan Mayor Karen Karapetyan, who they say has received a lucrative offer from Russia’s Gazprom.

But the rumor is that he was asked to resign because the authorities did not believe the mayor could deliver their expectations during the parliamentary elections.

On the heels of the first resignation the chief of police, Alik Sargisian, was also asked to resign after running a scandalous police department. He is believed to be unable to hold together warring factions within his department.

In view of this turmoil the US has been sending a message that nothing less than perfect elections will be acceptable.

The parties and coalitions will continue realigning themselves. The government will try to project a picture perfect image, yet the starving people will vote for the party who hands them 5,000 drams under the table.