The recent uptick in criticism of incumbent authorities by former Armenian president Robert Kocharian is prompting speculation in Yerevan that he is angling to make a political comeback.
The 59-year-old Kocharian, a Nagorno-Karabakh native, served as Armenia’s president from 1998-2008. He has the reputation of a tough political infighter with a taste for big business, big politics, and, on occasion, windsurfing. The focus of his recent attacks has been Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, who Kocharian derided as “morally defective,” “mediocre” and “helpless” (an appraisal delivered after Sarkisian’s dismissal of economic growth under Kocharian as “a bubble”). The public nature of the criticism served as a signal to many political analysts that Kocharian wanted to return to the political center stage.
The controversial 2008 election and subsequent protests in which at least 10 people were killed marred Kocharian’s exit from politics, and still represents a major obstacle to a comeback. But conditions in recent years have nonetheless changed. Armenia’s long-time leading opposition force -- the Armenian National Congress, led by another former president Levon Ter-Petrosian – has lost momentum, while, at the same time, public confidence in incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration has eroded, in large part because of continuing economic woes. Data from the National Statistical Service show that poverty rates over the past five years have increased by 17 percent, while the number of people living beneath the poverty line nearly doubled to 32.4 percent of the official 2012 population of 3.21 million people. At the same time, 246,000 people left Armenia for good from 2008-13, according to the government.
The present circumstances, then, provide an opening for Kocharian. “The interest toward him as a political figure first of all comes as a result of the lack of a serious political team on which people could place their hopes,” said Yervand Bozoian, an independent political expert. “People want to see an alternative to current authorities.”
There is a tendency throughout the South Caucasus, some analysts say, for people to yearn for a political messiah -- someone who offers hope for quick solutions to an array of complex problems. For some Armenians, Kocharian represents just such a savior figure, given that his presidential term is remembered, at least in retrospect, as relatively successful.
“I would definitely vote for Kocharian because he has a political will,” said Arsen Babaian, a 35-year-old manager in Yerevan. “He is a strong politician and I don’t see any alternative to him.”
Leaders of the governing Republican Party of Armenia seem acutely aware of their own party’s dwindling popularity, and the potential threat to their grip on power posed by Kocharian. At a mid-January news conference, one, Education Minister Armen Ashotian, tried to undercut Kocharian’s credibility. He asserted that a Kocharian comeback would be viable only if the country was in a “critical situation” and there was a strong “demand by the people.” Neither prerequisite exists, Ashotian quickly added. In addition, Kocharian would need to plainly state that he wants to return to power, something that he has not done.
Kocharian appears to prefer to keep people guessing. Rabbit-out-of-the-hat moves have marked Kocharian’s career since 1997, when former President Ter-Petrosian summoned him from Karabakh, where he was serving as the de-facto leader of separatist forces, to become prime minister of Armenia. A year later, after Ter-Petrosian’s resignation, Kocharian himself won election as president.
Hmayak Hovhannisian, head of the Union of Political Experts, says Kocharian may still have a cunning move or two left up his sleeve. A so-called “Russian scenario” between President Sargsyan and Kocharian – one becoming prime minister, while the other opts for president – cannot be excluded in time for the 2017 parliamentary election and 2018 presidential election, he suggested.
Sargsyan, who served as prime minister, defense minister and interior minister under Kocharian, has given no sign of being amenable to such a bargain.
Political analyst Richard Giragosian, director of Yerevan’s Regional Studies Center, sees little possibility for any such change. The legacy of the 2008 political violence is probably too big an obstacle to overcome for Kocharian. “Most Armenians hold Kocharian personally and politically responsible” for the violence and bloodshed of March 2008, he underlined.
“As his public position has seriously faded, so, too, has his role in being a relevant political figure,” Giragosian held. “Rather, what is more likely is his continued attempt to influence politics.”