Polarization Gives Way to Political Realism In Armenia

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Since March 1, 2008, Armenia’s political atmosphere has been extremely polarized because of the unfair election and the confrontation between the police and the opposition forces, which claimed 10 casualties.

The main opposition coalition, the Armenian National Congress (HAK), headed by former President Levon Ter- Petrosian, organized regular political rallies, with the participation of large masses. Many unemployed citizens, joined by former government officials, religiously attended these rallies; the starving populace was fed on Ter-Petrosian’s rhetoric.

No president, nor any public official thus far, has been able to upstage Ter-Petrosian’s oratorical skills. The former president was able to captivate his audience through his articulate and carefully-crafted speeches, in which his demands were sky high. His common refrain was to “dismantle” the “kleptocracy” and force early parliamentary elections.

Another former president, Robert Kocharian, had provided enough ammunition to the opposition to rally around. Emulating his master in Moscow, former President Vladimir Putin, who had elected his hand-picked successor to replace him at the end of the constitutionally-mandated term of absence, President Kocharian had decided to install a vulnerable lame duck administration to make his comeback possible.

Between Serge Sargisian’s election and his inauguration, Kocharian staged an armed confrontation with the opposition, which had camped in the Liberty Square, next to the opera, where most of the killings took place. Kocharian knew he should wait out the confrontation, to wear down the opposition and come to a peaceful outcome. But he opted for the violent solution, whose victims became a powerful weapon in the hands of the opposition.

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When President Sargisian was inaugurated, he did not distance himself from the actions of his predecessor and continued the repressive measures, jailing many opposition figures, which turned out to be cause celebres in Ter-Petrosian speeches.

For a while, the opposition was able to paralyze the country’s political system and invited the sanctions of international agencies. For example, the European Union issued critical reports on Armenia and threatened to ban Armenia’s delegation from participating in the PACE’s sessions.

The most recent casualty was the US Millennium Challenge subsidies for Armenia’s agricultural development.

In all fairness, however, Ter-Petrosian calibrated down his rhetoric every time the administration was in sensitive negotiations with Turkey or Azerbaijan, in order not to be accused of stabbing the government in the back. Sometimes, he even put a moratorium on his rallies.

Sargisian kept his cool and tried to consolidate his position domestically and internationally. He refused to give in to the opposition’s demands to resign or hold early parliamentary elections.

In view of next year’s elections, the opposing parties realized it was time to find a modus vivendi. Ter- Petrosian toned down his rhetoric; “kleptocracy” and “dismantling” were dropped from his lexicon. His 18 demands were reduced to a manageable three. His maximalist demand that the only topic for negotiation between the authorities and the opposition had to focus on the modalities of the president’s removal from office disappeared from his agenda.

The demands which were left on the table were the following: a) a pledge by the authorities to investigate the March 1 killings; b) allowing Liberty Square to open for political rallies and, c) releasing the remaining political prisoners from jail.

Ter-Petrosian pledged to begin negotiations with the government, after the latter meets the above conditions.

President Sargisian seized the opportunity to make his major conciliatory move by pre-empting any extreme outcome which could develop on the April 28 rally, which Ter-Petrosian had decided to make either the beginning of negotiation or a “watershed.”

On April 27, on the eve of the opposition rally, the president released the following statement: “A very important tradition is shaping up in the parliament; the deliberations are held at their correct limits, although sometimes rough angles pop up. If the ruling coalition and the parliamentary opposition make joint efforts we can achieve some civilized benchmarks. I would also like to underline some positive developments in the opposition ranks outside the parliament. Rallies are being held, speeches are made, which do not intend to divide the people, nor do they intend to ‘crush’ or ‘destroy,’ rather they move the public to a political level. No one has been able to achieve anything through evil intent. Only strong people can dispel the evil. We have a strong government and an opposition, which keeps the government’s toes to the fire. We can achieve great success through cooperation. We would like to be the first ones to take steps to defuse the situation. I have already given instructions to the minister of justice to come up with a proposal.”

This last statement is interpreted as a pledge by the president to release the remaining political prisoners from jail by May 28. Thus, the president proved that he controlled the political agenda in the country.

The next day, Ter-Petrosian was equally magnanimous in his speech. “If the door is not yet fully open it is at least half open,” he declared. “Two of our demands are already met (March 1 and Liberty Square.) The third one will be met with some delay.” And then he continued in a more conciliatory tone: “We can resolve our problems through the methods dictated by the situation. There are only two approaches: one is negotiation through the spirit of national unity and the other is through physical confrontation, which may bring disastrous results. We have decided to take the first option and we believe that the majority of the people will support that decision.”

Ter-Petrosian’s moderation caused some cracks in his opposition block. Some elements who were looking for a more radical confrontation were disenchanted, as were some others who were expecting issues of social order to be resolved. The present topics of discussion do not bring food on the table, yet.

Therefore, the stage is set for next year’s election and it is rumored that the negotiations are already being conducted behind the scenes. Also, political horse trading has already begun for the parliamentary seats between the competing powers. Rumors about apportioning the parliamentary seats coincide with the findings of political pollster Aharon Adibekyan. Thus, it is believed that the lion’s share of parliamentary seats will go to the present ruling coalition. The combined seats of the Republican Party, Prosperous Armenia and the Country of Laws (Orinatz Yerkir) will constitute 70 percent. Although the Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties have signed an official pact, recently some dissenting voices were heard that the latter may participate in the election on its own. But these statements are dismissed as pre-election posturing to grab the maximum numbers of ministerial portfolios after the election.

The remaining 30 percent of the seats will be allocated to the opposition. Roughly 10 seats will be given to HAK. The ARF will have five to seven seats. Aram Karapetian (Karapetich), a vociferous media man, will get in with one seat. Although there seems to be a tendency to leave out Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party, its powerful sponsors may squeeze the party in the parliament at the expense of ARF and HAK.

Certainly these are mere speculations of some observers. Unforeseen political developments may completely alter the situation, rendering these speculations baseless.

Armenians are preparing for parliamentary elections a year ahead of time, and of course the outcome of these elections may determine the fate of the presidential election in 2013.

In view of this horse trading, one of the journalists in Armenia has made the following sarcastic statement: “Although we cannot hold fair elections, at least we anticipate peaceful elections.”

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