Robert Kocharyan at his Yerevan rally on May 9, 2021

Former President Kocharyan Looks and Acts Like New Candidate

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YEREVAN – Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, took a further step towards formalizing his participation in upcoming snap parliamentary elections on Sunday, May 9. 

At a press briefing for his newly-established electoral alliance, dubbed the Armenia Bloc, the former president told reporters that he decided to return to politics to rectify what he believes are great threats to the country’s long-term security and stability allegedly caused by the current authorities. Kocharyan accuses Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government of failing to provide security in border regions, signing the November 9 cease-fire on unfavourable terms, and mismanaging the economy. 

“Our goal is to establish a dignified peace,” Kocharyan said, adding that the current government is too tarnished by the shame of defeat to accomplish this. 

This sentiment was shared by the leaders of the Armenia Bloc’s two other parties. “This current government has done nothing but cause division in our society for three years, culminating in thousands of deaths and defeat,” said Ishkhan Saghatelyan, who heads the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), Kocharyan’s main coalition partner. Saghatelyan, who until recently, vehemently opposed the prospects of a snap election, will be second on the new bloc’s electoral list. Vahe Hakobyan, the leader of the second coalition partner Revived Armenia, will also be in the top 5. 

Following the press junket, Kocharyan and his entourage made their way on foot to a pre-election rally, accompanied by a police security detail, where they were greeted by supporters. According to an estimate by the civil rights watchdog Union of Informed Citizens, this inaugural event drew a crowd of approximately 7900, some waving the flags of Armenia, Artsakh and the ARF. Addressing his supporters at Freedom Square – incidentally the site of a bloody crackdown which the then-president allegedly ordered on the opposition on March 1, 2008 – Kocharyan declared, “Let me assure you that tomorrow everything will get better.”

Kocharyan, who still faces charges of bribery, has joined two other former presidents, Levon Ter-Petrossian and Serzh Sargsyan, in blaming Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for a disastrous outcome to the almost 30-year-old frozen conflict. Kocharyan has hoped to capitalize on a wave of discontent with authorities following last year’s defeat against Azerbaijan to revive his political ambitions. The former president seeks to present himself as a wise, even-handed but firm leader coming out of retirement to steer Armenia through difficult times, in contrast to the incumbent prime minister. 

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However, leveraging enthusiastic support among his base into tangible election gains may not come that easily. The aura he has carefully cultivated around himself relies heavily on invoking nostalgia for his time in office, and coming to terms with a very controversial legacy which has left many Armenians bitter. 

Kocharyan’s supporters have long touted his involvement in the victorious First Karabakh War, along with his presiding over an unprecedented period of economic success during his two terms in office between 1998 and 2008, and his long standing personal friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as affirmation of his leadership credentials. Nonetheless, detractors and some economists have disputed that record.

While Armenia did experience a decade-long period of double-digit economic growth which mostly coincided with Kocharyan’s presidency, economists attributed this to a combination of generous foreign aid, remittances by Armenian guest workers attracted to Russia’s oil boom, and real-estate speculation. As part of a 2005 policy report, the same World Bank experts who bestowed the moniker “Caucasian Tiger” on Armenia’s apparent economic success story warned that without proper regulatory reform and serious attempts to reign in corruption, these figures could not be sustained. 

These warnings proved prophetic when, in late 2008 and early 2009, Armenia’s unprecedented economic growth abruptly turned into unprecedented economic contraction – exasperated by the sudden drying up of remittances from workers in Russia, which was experiencing its own recession. However, with Kocharyan, having left office just as the full economic impact would be felt, his successor, Serzh Sargsyan was left to handle the fallout, and the blame. 

Other detractors accuse Kocharyan of undermining Armenia’s statehood, both at home and abroad, having fostered instead a culture of entrenched corruption, clientelism, nepotism and brutal repression and murder, which enabled state capture by a class of oligarchs at the expense of institutions of State, and by extension, the Armenian people. This legacy, they insist, has permeated every level of government, including the military, and continues to plague policy-makers to this day.

Kocharyan’s legacy regarding the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict hasn’t escaped scrutiny from critics either. Having toppled his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrossian, in 1998, ostensibly to secure better terms in a then-imminent peace deal, Kocharyan ended his second – and final – term in office without delivering on the dignified peace he has built his presidency on. The closest he ever reached to a deal with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heydar Aliyev, at Key West in 2001, was heavily criticized by supporters of the ousted Ter-Petrossian as a weaker version of the same agreement which he had originally opposed in 1997, and crucially first introduced the idea of a “Meghri Corridor,” which has since made it onto Azerbaijan’s negotiation agenda.

Still, in his efforts to unseat the incumbent prime minister in the upcoming snap parliamentary elections, Kocharyan might be facing an uphill battle. For starters, the current parliamentary system of government – designed, ironically, under his one-time ally Serzh Sargsyan – favors competition between well-established political parties and contains safeguards to minimize the chance of sweeping electoral gains by one-man “black horse” candidates. Kocharyan, who famously declared himself to be above party politics, now has to rely on the electoral machine of his allies, while surmounting the additional hurdle against election blocs in Parliament. 

This will also be the first time that Kocharyan campaigns without the aid of “institutional resources” which he had previously relied on to prop-up his candidacy. Having first ascended to the presidency in a palace coup, rather than popular vote, the two elections held under his watch, in 1998 and 2003, were both widely considered among the least free and fair in Armenia’s independent history. Stricter voter fraud laws which have been implemented since that time would make some of the feats previously observed by international missions rather difficult to replicate for the sitting government, let alone an outside candidate. 

Another electoral code reform, the insistence on televised leader debates, also puts Kocharyan at a distinct disadvantage. Having grown up in the Soviet school system in his native Artsakh, Kocharyan never mastered the Armenian language. His carefully scripted televised speeches, mostly aided by teleprompters, may prove unsuited for the fast-paced live debate arena in which his chief rival, the firebrand Nikol Pashinyan, famously thrives. 

Despite playing up his pro-Russian credentials, Kocharyan may not count on support from Putin either. The Kremlin has so far refrained from showing any favoritism in what it considers “an internal Armenian matter.” 

If recent polling figures are to be believed, Kocharyan and his political allies would have their work cut out for them to secure trust among the electorate. In an opinion survey conducted in February by IRI, only 3 percent of Armenians said they would support him as a candidate. His political ally, the ARF, garnered even less support at 1 percent. The second force in the alliance didn’t even exist at the time the poll was conducted.

With the National Assembly once again failing to elect a replacement prime minister on Monday, May 10, the prospects of an election being held on June 20 is all but certain. With Pashinyan still the clear front-runner despite last year’s defeat, observers fear that the upcoming campaign will be dominated by the trading of accusations between two political heavyweights at the expense of clear policy proposals to resolve the current crisis. 

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