In light of what happened subsequently, it is worth noting that in summer 1996, Armenia’s upcoming presidential election was expected to be anti-climactic, with the incumbent, Levon Ter-Petrossyan, easily retaining his office. By August 1996, the economic crises Armenia had endured after becoming independent 5 years before seemed to have eased. The divided and largely ineffective opposition did not appear to threaten seriously a sitting president in control of the state apparatus, and disposing of broad, constitutionally mandated executive powers. In the event, however, the election and its aftermath proved an object lesson in the surprises of political campaigns and humility for many analysts and probably for most of the leading participants.
Levon Ter-Petrossyan brought a mixed legacy into the contest. A scholar by training, he had entered politics as a member of the Karabakh Committee that emerged in 1988, which cost him 6 months in a Soviet prison but gave him patriotic, dissident and leadership credentials as the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted. In the May 1990 parliamentary elections, when the Communist Party lost control of Armenia, he was elected chairman of the parliament.I Ter-Petrossyan then shepherded Armenia out of the USSR in September 1991, and became president in October 1991. Under Ter-Petrossyan’s rule, landlocked Armenia has endured a constant energy crisis caused by Baku’s blockade of oil and gas deliveries across Azerbaijan to Armenia. Like other former Soviet republics cut off from estab- lished trading partners, Armenia has also experienced a profound economic slump, with Gross Domestic Product falling 52.4 percent in 1992 and 14.8 percent in 1993. All the while, the government has had to care for hundreds of thousands of refugees from Azerbaijan and people still homeless after the December 1988 earthquake. Many Armenians, unable or unwilling to endure the hardships, especially in winter, have voted with their feet. According to official Armenian figures, 400,000 people have left the country in the past few years, leaving about 2,250,000 in Armenia’s 10 provinces and 1,200,000 in Yerevan. Opposition groups maintain the figure is higher than one million, while the UN’s figures are in between, at around 700,000. Whatever the actual figure, such an exodus for a country with a population of about 3.5 million is remarkable, and a testament to the difficulties of living in, and governing, Armenia today.