Armenia's Fallen Hero Tries To Recover in Second Term

Ter-Petrossian, who once defied Moscow, barely won reelection

There is a poster left over from last month's presidential elections here that still adorns the windows of some shops whose owners are especially keen to display their support for Armenia's government.

It shows President Levon Ter-Petrossian pensive but purposeful, his head bowed by the burdens of office, but nonetheless striding in a determined manner toward his goal.

The image is an unusual departure from standard electoral propaganda pictures, which more frequently offer a full-face, straight-ahead stare from a candidate. But one disgruntled Armenian voter had an explanation for the photograph: "He doesn't dare look us in the eye."

For the elections are over, and Mr. Ter-Petrossian is still president because he rigged the vote, according to foreign diplomats and international poll monitors. And that, they say, is disappointing in a man who once enjoyed heroic status as a courageous democrat who defied the Soviet power to lead Armenia to independence.

Five years after he was elected as modern Armenia's first president, Ter-Petrossian's reputation is badly tarnished both at home and abroad. But the democrat-turned-autocrat will concentrate on winning back public approval during his second term, his aides say.

Certainly his first term has not been an easy one. He led his country to victory on the ground against neighboring Azerbaijan, winning control over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh after six years of fighting. Hemmed in by enemies, he has securely anchored Armenia's place as a sovereign nation in the world community. And he has steered the economy through free market reforms to the first stirrings of recovery after several years of depression.

But even with these significant past achievements, Ter-Petrossian has clearly lost the overwhelming popular affection and support that swept him to victory at the last presidential elections in 1991, when he took 86 percent of the vote.

By the narrowest of margins

On Sept. 22, even by the disputed official count, he barely scraped to a first-round victory with 51.8 per cent.

His critics say that the president simply took the people's support for granted. Until compelled to do so by the election campaign, Ter-Petrossian rarely travelled outside Yerevan, the capital of his mountainous country. In fact, he hardly even appeared on television to explain to an increasingly restless electorate what he was doing.

This aloofness is a far cry from the early days of Armenia's struggle against Moscow, when Ter-Petrossian became the voice of independence from the Soviet Union, the man whose slow, modulated speaking style could hold the attention of crowds hundreds of thousands strong.

An obscure linguist who had worked for years as a specialist in Oriental languages at a library of rare manuscripts in Yerevan, Ter-Petrossian captured Armenia's and the world's imagination in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he moved to the forefront of his tiny nation's struggle against the Soviet Goliath. A six- month spell in a Moscow jail for his activities only enhanced his image.

But since winning independence and the presidency, Ter-Petrossian has surrounded himself with an ever-narrower group of advisers and senior ministers. Many Armenians, reluctant to blame Ter-Petrossian, attribute the country's ills to his cronies.

Regardless, Ter-Petrossian has presided over parliamentary elections last year that were widely denounced as unfair, banned one of the most influential opposition parties by decree, and now locked up his political rivals in the wake of violent protests against the election count

The result is an atmosphere so tense that it is hard to find anybody in Yerevan prepared to express an opinion about Ter-Petrossian unless their anonymity is guaranteed.

Autocrat, or democrat with a vision?

The president himself rarely grants interviews to defend himself against charges of autocracy. But aides and supporters say he is a serious-minded man who takes no decision lightly, and for whom Armenia's national security and stability are of paramount concern.

The problem, some who know him well suggest, is that he has cloaked partisan political assaults on the opposition in the guise of national security interests.

His detractors complain that as Ter-Petrossian pursues his vision of Armenia as a regional Switzerland, a thriving and open hub for trade and transport between Asia and Europe, he has grown increasingly intolerant of anybody standing in his way.

"The country only stands to gain from a new and improved Ter-Petrossian who can show that he can take stock of his mistakes and be the president of a nation, not just a government or a political force," says former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, head of an independent think tank here.

Whether Ter-Petrossian feels the need to restore his democratic credentials, and whether he can find way to do so, has yet to be seen.

In the meantime, says one prominent political figure who asked not to be identified, "He didn't want to lose his position, OK. But the way it happened, he didn't win. He lost."

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