THE FORCED resignation of controversial President Levon Ter-Petrosian threatens to derail complicated efforts to ease hostilities between largely Christian Armenia and its nominally Islamic neighbor, Azerbaijan.
Theirs is not a dispute that arises from religious differences, but a quarrel that involves contested territory and centuries of historical animosities. It now has all the potential of rekindling a regional crisis.
Mr. Ter-Petrosian was an arbitrary leader who most probably cheated his way into re-election in 1996. But he was the glue that kept together a peace process sponsored by the United States, France and Russia. With his resignation, efforts to end an economic blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey have been dealt a severe blow. Material hardships and stagnation will continue in Armenia.
Armenia's top power brokers -- its military and security apparatus -- gradually turned against Mr. Lev-Petrosian because they felt he was becoming too soft on the key issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. That majority Armenian ethnic enclave is deep inside Azerbaijan and is the source of most of the two former Soviet republics' recent troubles.
Mr. Lev-Petrosian's military backers became upset with the president in September, when he declared that while Nagorno-Karabakh could be autonomous, it would have to remain part of Azerbaijan. The president's critics saw this as dangerous heresy. They accused him of being willing to surrender the sparsely populated, mountainous territory for which thousands of Armenians had died.
With Mr. Lev-Petrosian now gone, Prime Minister Robert Kocharian has become acting president of the country. A Nagorno-Karabakh native, he is not technically a citizen of Armenia. That problem would have to be rectified by the country's Supreme Court if he decides to run in the March 16 presidential election.
Nagorno-Karabakh was the defining issue of Armenian politics even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The remote enclave's only realistic hope for cultural and religious self-determination is as an autonomous part of Azerbaijan. Mr. Lev-Petrosian recognized this and was branded a traitor. Finding a solution to this difficult dilemma will be much more difficult without him.
Pub Date: 2/10/98