Hermit academic bids for executive: Levon Ter-Petrossian

Armenia Materials 15 February 2008 17:37 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrossian's dramatic comeback from a decade out of the public eye has added spark to a presidential campaign that had seen little competition for the incumbent's favoured candidate.

At celebrations for the small post-Soviet state's independence in September, Ter-Petrossian announced his return to politics with blistering criticism of Armenia's current leadership.

The charismatic former leader threw off the mantle of the media- shy academic with inflammatory rhetoric that went as far as tacitly accusing the duo of President Robert Kocharian and his favoured successor Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian of responsibility for a terrorist attack that killed several prominent politicians in 1999.

Ter-Petrossian, an oriental scholar, returned to academia after his ouster in 1998, publishing a 600-page book on the Crusades last year.

He faces old enemies in the current campaign having been forced from power by Kochrian and Sarkisian over economic discontent and a severe backlash to his conciliatory stand in peace talks over Azerbaijan's ethnically-Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno- Karabakh.

That frozen conflict has turned into one of the fiercest issues in the current election campaign, opening onto wider differences over the direction of the country's future foreign policy: Working towards a rapprochement with the West or cementing old alliances with Russia.

Ter-Petrossian has spoken in favour of NATO accession talks and positively of US plans to deploy missile defence systems, which Russia opposes.

But the comeback candidate has alleged he met with the Russian presidential frontrunner Dmitry Medvedev in an indication he does not stand for a rupture with Russia, which holds a military base in Armenia.

Claiming that the establishment candidate holds a monopoly over the country's media and administrative resources, Ter-Petrossian has taken his campaigning to the streets drawing impressive crowds of between 12,000 to 20,000.

But analysts said the candidate had far to go to win back voters' trust, many of whom remember his presidency as a period of economic stagnation when nights were often spent by candle light due to chronic power outages.

It will be a battle between the memories of the hard times under his presidency and frustration with perceived corruption under the current political leadership that would provoke a protest vote, according Gegam Khalatyan, the president of the Association of Armenians in Russia.