Opposition Splintered in Armenia

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

In most civilized countries, independent and co-equal branches of the government balance centers of power and curb the dictatorial impulses of any party in the above equation. However, a fourth force complements the equation: a healthy and responsible opposition.

While among the governing forces checks and balances are achieved through the proper exercise of each branch’s duties — by the executive, the legislative and the judiciary — the opposition, in turn, balances all of the above.

Opposition parties in Europe and in North America act as shadow governments and they are prepared to take over the helm should any unforeseen development take place or just in the normal course, if the ruling party loses popular support.

But, in developing countries, the opposition is considered the enemy, most of the time, and the opposition’s programs and ideas are ignored, just to deny them credibility.

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Armenia, being a developing country, was not able to develop a healthy and legitimate opposition. While the ruling elite is constantly labeled as “illegitimate,” the opposition in its turn has not been able to play by the rules. So often, it seems, it is not that the opposition members are clamoring for justice; instead, they lose credibility because they seem to want their piece of the pie.

Armenia is just emerging from totalitarian rule and it is doubtful that it can develop a true opposition, as it cannot hold credible elections to bring to power legitimately-elected officials.

In recent years, the opposition went through many phases and right at the moment that it had garnered enough clout to shake up the incumbent rulers, it was shattered. However, anthropologist Hranush Kharatyan does not believe that the recent debacle of the opposition has created a power vacuum.

After suffering several defeats, the head of the Armenian National Congress — and former president — Levon Ter-Petrosian was courting Gagik Tsarukian, the head of the Prosperous Armenia Party, which at one point claimed 500,000 members. However, Tsarukian continued sitting on the fence and keeping Ter-Petrosian guessing. What broke the camel’s back was President Serge Sargisian’s harsh criticism of Tsarukian, who vowed to retaliate. The solidarity between ANC, Prosperous Armenia and Raffi Hovanissian’s Heritage Party was going to be consummated at a February 19 rally, with the prospect of shaking up the government and creating a very dangerous political atmosphere on the eve of the Genocide centennial.

Moscow-based Armenian business tycoon Samvel Karapetyan and the ARF (Dashnag) party were instrumental in diffusing an explosive situation. A face-to-face meeting was brokered between the president and Mr. Tsarukian, the latter coming up with some conciliatory remarks. But, in the meantime, high-profile defections from Prosperous Armenia signaled its disintegration. The party’s leading statesman, Vartan Oskanian, former foreign minister, is even rumored to have resigned from the parliament and left the country.

Kharatyan, an erudite scholar who does not seem to vie for a political position, remains a genuine voice in the opposition. In a recent interview, she has stated that there is a great public demand for the opposition in Armenia, “and two or three groups can bid for the main opposition force — Heritage Party, MP Nikol Pashinian’s Civil Union and Pre-Parliament” although the latter has been labeled as pseudo-opposition by Mr. Ter-Petrosian.

Kharatyan concluded her remarks by stating: “I do not think Mr. Tsarukian will return to politics until it is clear which force is the real leader of Armenia’s politics.”

A recent Gallup Poll has more or less validated Kharatyan’s observations. According to a survey conducted by Gallup International in Armenia, the brightest opposition figures are considered to be Zaruhi Postanjyan, a member of the Armenian Heritage faction, Raffi Hovannisian of the Heritage Party, and Pashinian.

The same poll asked respondents to assess the opposition activity of political forces on a five-point scale. The results are as follows: Heritage, 3.7 points; Prosperous Armenia, 3.63 points; Armenian National Congress, 3.62 points; ARF, 3.2 points and Orinantz Yerkir Party, 2.4 points.

Of course, the polls also reflect the political maturity of the participants.

As far as the “brightest oppositionists” are concerned, three names have emerged. Nikol Pashinian, Zaruhi Postanjyan and Hovanissian. Pashinian has attained a veneer of respectability after he formed his own party and was elected a member of parliament. He has, however, a checkered past, as he served as Ter-Petrosian’s attack dog during the heyday of the ANC. He also gained the distinction of lowering the standards of Armenian journalism to its nadir, while editing the opposition mouthpiece, Haykakan Jamanak. Postanjyan, by contrast, seems to be photogenic and controversial for the sake of drawing attention and shock value, almost in the same vein as Sarah Palin in the US, but has not shown her true mettle. During a trip to Baden Baden, Germany, at a press conference, she asked about President Sargisian’s gambling habits and in another instance, voted with the Azeri parliamentarians when she was representing Armenia at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). So much for exhibiting political maturity.

Hovannisian, lastly, squandered his political capital to become a power broker after the last presidential election. It is doubtful if he will enjoy a second chance.

The president of Yerevan Press Club Boris Navasardyan believes that political forces are discredited, but all is not lost yet. “Armenia’s 25-year-long experience,” he says, “has demonstrated that everything can be forgiven, and any political force can win over society, provided it develops the right strategy. At national elections, society is inclined to support any force that is critical of the incumbent authorities.”

Political figures who have gained notoriety may eventually mature to become real forces in the opposition, showing real leadership in addition to charisma.

While Armenia waits for their maturation, former President Robert Kocharian is putting the pieces of a broken system together to revive the Prosperous Armenia Party as his workhorse for a comeback.

The measure of every aspiring opposition political figure is his or her past performance.

Armenia has yet to witness the emergence of a party or a statesman who will dissociate themselves from a corrupt system and rule the country along the lines of a European democracy.