BY HAIG KAYSERIAN
Commenting on the virus that is corruption, Mahatma Ghandi once said: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”
Now to the title of this article: “But what about Levon?”
From the outset, let’s declare unequivocal support to the relentless fight against corruption and misuse of power, embarked upon in the Republic of Armenia. This is a battle supported by new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and carried out by the Special Investigation Service, the National Security Service and related authorities.
The recent, high-profile arrest of Armenia’s former President Robert Kocharian was a true indicator of how far these investigations are willing to go in order to weed out corruption at its roots. If he is proven to have misused his power (after all, corruption comes in many flavors), Kocharian deserves to have the book thrown at him.
And while authorities are working on a cure of this virus called “corruption,” let’s not forget that the initial outbreak that spread the epidemic into the halls of power in Armenia started with the country’s first President: Levon Ter Petrossian.
In his recent interview on Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Pashinyan said the greatest achievement of his unprecedented movement was restoring the “voice” of the people.
His predecessors (presidents under the previous Constitution), Serge Sargsyan and Robert Kocharian successfully kept that “voice” away from the people, by overseeing elections rampant with questionable practices, highlighted by the charge levelled against Kocharian – of “overthrowing the constitutional order” during events surrounding the 2008 election, when he allegedly mobilised the armed forces against protestors. The ensuing clashes resulted in 10 deaths.
While investigators and the Constitution are ultimately the ones who can determine Kocharian’s level of guilt, there is no doubt that both he and Sargsyan kept that “voice” away from the people. Not a single election that elected or re-elected them to their roles, was reviewed as free of irregularities.
However, let’s make no mistake. The person who originally took that “voice” from the people was none other than Levon Ter Petrossian—the Godfather of “election doctoring” in Armenia; the pioneering architect of “crushing the will of the Armenian people”; the mastermind behind tactics that would become contagious—after all, both Kocharian and Sargsyan worked in his administration before succeeding him in the office of President.
Don’t just take this author’s word for it (as the author of another article, “Levon the Virus,” there’s no question where I stand), but do read these excerpts from what Human Rights Watch wrote following the 1996 elections, which Ter Petrosian apparently won: “Demonstrators marched to the parliament, where the Central Election Commission (CEC) was housed, and broke through gates to demand a recount. In the process they beat Speaker Babken Ararktsian and Deputy Speaker Ara Sahakian.”
“In response, police brutally beat demonstrators and later arrested at least twenty-eight opposition leaders and supporters and CEC staffers. Among them, according to credible reports, Aghassi Arshakian, Kim Balayan, David Vartanian, Gagik Mgerdichian, and Aramad Zarkaryan, were brutally beaten; the latter required hospitalization for a fractured skull and broken nose and ribs. Attorneys for some of the detained, notably ARF leader Ruben Akopyan, were not permitted access to their clients.”
Further, Ter Petrosian also brought in the military in 1996, as Kocharian is charged to have done in 2008… and much more.
Human Rights Watch again: “In the wake of these events, police detained about 200 more individuals believed to have participated in the demonstration, President Ter-Petrossian banned public demonstrations and called in army troops to patrol Yerevan, and the Procurator General announced his intention to press charges of attempting violently to overthrow the government against Vazgen Manukyan and seven other opposition leaders. Police closed the offices of the National Democratic Union (Vazgen Manukian’s party), the National Self-Determination Association (a tiny opposition party), the Union of Constitutional Rights (a nationalist party), and Artsakh-Hayastan (an organisation for the promotion of Karabakh issues).”
Amnesty International also wrote about these incidents in great detail at the time: “A Reuters television producer reports that she saw armed people in camouflage dress break into the building, and drag people out while punching and kicking them: at least seven severely beaten men were taken away in a police van. Inside the building four women were said to have been among those attacked by the uniformed men. “
For more on the voting processes which led to the protests described above, let’s read the following from Human Rights Watch: “…in the majority of districts without international observers, no local observers were allowed, dead people and minors miraculously appeared on lists of voters, soldiers were bused in with orders to vote for Ter-Petrossian, and ballot boxes were reportedly stuffed. The elections failed to win the approval of the OSCE ODIHR Election Observer Mission, which concluded that ‘very serious breaches’ in the voting raised concern ‘for the overall integrity of the election process’.”
There are some familiar trends here, right?
Those of us following more recent Armenian elections have heard of this stuff. Calling on the military, beating protestors, busing in voters, raising the dead to vote on election day, ballot box fraud…. All of this began with the 1996 outbreak of the corruption Virus we can call Levon, which was passed on to those who followed Ter Petrosian like the epidemic that it was.
Not only did Ter Petrosian do all of the above, he also banned opposition parties, jailed or expelled their leaders from the country, closed their offices and … there was something else… Oh yeah, he offered to hand the liberated territories of Artsakh to Azerbaijan.
To some, Levon Ter Petrossian might be much or slightly better, or much or slightly worse than those who followed him as leaders of Armenia. To others, it might be of great or little significance that he was the first to use his power and resources to steal the will away from the people.
Regardless of our opinions, the people of Armenia are owed his day in court to respond to what was witnessed by local and international observers alike. While Pashinyan is proving himself as a brave battler for freedom from the corrupt, his past relationship with Ter Petrosian (Pashinyan ran his 2008 campaign) is being thrown in his face by commentators.
Make no mistake, we all want Pashinyan to be successful as the leader who oversaw the end of the cycle of corruption in Armenia. It was Henry Kissinger who once quipped that “corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.” Most of us believe that Pashinyan is in that ten percent!
But there is something called “selective anti-corruption measures” that the Prime Minister would prefer not to be accused of. Even though he has long spoken about justice for what happened on the streets of Yerevan during the Kocharian election in 2008, authorities need to cast their nets wider.
A former Governor and party chieftain in Nigeria, Professor Oserheimen Osunbor was asked about Muhammadu Buhari’s performance as his country’s President, after his anti-corruption measures were being criticised as “selective”.
Osunbor answered: “A selective anti-corruption war for Nigeria, if that be the case, is far better than no anti-corruption war at all. However, government must strive to be fair to all and ensure that the anti-corruption war does not spare anyone.”
Let’s agree with that when applied to Armenia – solving the corruption and abuse of power that followed Levon Ter Petrossian will make Armenia a better place. However striving “to be fair to all” and ensuring the “anti-corruption war does not spare anyone”, requires us to ask: “But what about Levon?”
Moving forward, then. Duxov!