Who Needs a Maidan in Armenia Today?

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

The Orange Revolution and the Rose Revolution brought regime changes in Ukraine and Georgia, respectively, but Armenia was spared during both cases and maintained its stability throughout those stormy periods. But rumors, forecasts and political analyses always pointed to the possibility of a color revolution in Armenia as well.

President Serge Sargisian’s administration weathered successfully the tides of unrest fomented by the opposition, and taking the initiative, it also deflated the opposition.

Levon Ter-Petrosian’s National Congress Party, which fed on the popular discontent, could not use its ammunition to the fullest. Therefore, although the opposition was cut to size and contained, popular discontent remained as a latent force for any future politician to explore and explode. The economy continued in stagnation, emigration reached dangerous proportions and Armenia’s dependence on Russia compromised its sovereignty. It seemed that those social and political problems had not eroded the power of the ruling elite. But recent developments indicate that challenges are on their way and the administration is under constant pressure. Those pressures yield result when coupled with outside factors.

In recent days, dramatic changes have taken place in Armenia’s domestic political landscape. But to view and analyze the developments within the context of internal political life may be too simplistic and inconclusive. Currently, Russia is under siege because of the turmoil in Ukraine; Moscow blames the US and the West for NATO creeping closer and closer to Russian borders and the West’s countercharge is that Moscow is fomenting turmoil in former Soviet Republics. No matter where the truth stands, ensuing problems will impact Armenia as well, since the country is so integrated with Russia socially, economically, politically and militarily.

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On February 12, 2015, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings on US-Azerbaijan relations. Testimony was given by Dr. Svante E. Cornell, director of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Outlining the US policy regarding the region, Dr. Cornell’s recommendation was to overlook Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses and base US policy on more pragmatic aspects, namely oil and regional security. Further broadening the focus, the director stated: “The task of countering [President Vladimir] Putin’s Russian imperialism goes beyond Ukraine and requires a firm strategy to bolster the states on Russia’s periphery, and especially to maintain the crucial east-west corridor to Central Asia open. But the Caucasus and Central Asia include fully one half of secular Muslim majority states in the world… Thus the Caucasus (and Central Asia) should be seen as bulwarks against both Moscow and the Islamic radicalism of the Middle East.”

The implication is that since Russia has its hands full in a border war in next-door Ukraine, it would be helpful for West’s containment policy to trigger another flashpoint on Russia’s periphery, and Armenia is one of those peripheral states.

It is no surprise, therefore, that as soon as the Serge Sargisian-Gagik Tsaroukian controversy broke out, news outlets financed and directed by Western countries unanimously took a very critical position vis-à-vis the president’s statements.

It was indeed a political bombshell which President Sargisian lobbed at the oligarch, who is the head of the Prosperous Armenia Party. He portrayed Tsaroukian as “evil” and incompetent in Armenia’s political life.

This development was in the making for a long time. Mr. Tsaroukian is the titular head of the Prosperous Armenia Party, but actually, the party was founded by the former president, Robert Kocharian, and has been manipulated constantly by him in the background.

Sargisian’s Republican Party and the Prosperous Armenia Party formed the ruling coalition initially, with the understanding that the Putin-style transition would be implemented in Armenia, with Sargisian serving out his term and paving the way for a Kocharian’s return. Relations began souring when the plan did not work the way it was supposed to; Sargisian did not relinquish the reins of power and the coalition began to splinter. For a long time, Levon Ter-Petrosian courted Tsaroukian to no avail. Now that Tsaroukian has become a target of the president’s criticism threw the gauntlet and rallied the opposition parties around him and called for a nationwide rally on February 20, calling for he president’s resignation. Prosperous Armenia joined the Armenian National Congress and Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party to use all means, including “civil disobedience” to bring down Mr. Sargisian. The rally will prove to be a litmus test of the opposition’s power.

Politics in Armenia are the mirror-image of those in Russia. Putin jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovski, who had opposed him politically, usurped his assets worth over $10 billion and let him leave the country almost penniless after 20 years of incarceration.

The same tactics are replayed in Armenia now. Tsaroukian was removed from the National Security Council, he was stripped of his presidency of the National Sports Agency and now the president has sent a formal letter to the speaker of parliament, Galust Sahakian, to take away Mr. Tsaroukian’s protection as a member of parliament. Meanwhile, all of his businesses have been investigated for potential tax evasion. Thus far, Mr. Tsaroukian has conducted his businesses in Armenia, employing some 20,000 people, now all of a sudden, he has become a suspect upon a fallout with the president.

The current administration has been able to destroy more sophisticated oligarchs, like Khacahdour Soukiasyan, who left the country with his huge capital, instead doing business in Europe and the Gulf states, to the detriment of Armenia’s economy.

But despite his macho image, Mr. Tsaroukian thus far is behaving smartly. It is apparent that he is being coached by much more experienced political minds in the opposition. For example, in his response to the president’s criticism, he said that he is not a politician in the classic sense, but that he wishes to help his people.

Tsaroukian has crossed the Rubicon and with his help, the opposition will fight the administration with renewed vigor.

Observers and the general public are stunned at this conflict taking place at this time, which may lead to a new Maidan which, Mr. Tsaroukian, has said he has avoided thus far.

Why is the president so emboldened when the country’s problem persist? Emigration is continuing on a dangerous scale, the economy is staggering and above all, the border with Azerbaijan is again becoming a war zone.

The president’s domestic challenges are coupled with a foreign relations challenge, when he suddenly decided to withdraw the Protocols from the Parliament’s agenda. He took the last initiative the moment Mr. Davutolgu had adopted a more conciliatory tone toward Armenia. The Turkish prime minister reiterated his previous offer of relinquishing one region in Karabagh to open the border with Armenia. It is a different matter that the offer would not be a starter because the give and take are not equivalent. Swapping territory for lifting the blockade could prove to be an illusion, because the borders can be closed at will any time, but land could be taken “only by blood,” as noted Turkish dictator Kenan Evren.

This crisis is ill-timed, when the entire diaspora will be converging to Armenia, too for the centennial commemoration of the Genocide. Not only the diaspora, but also many dignitaries like President Francois Hollande and others will arrive at a crisis-ridden country.

We do not want to see another Maidan reenacted. But who needed this crisis at this time?