Destabilizing Factors in Armenia’s Politics

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Armenia is experiencing a crisis within a crisis. The global impact of the coronavirus has affected every nation, and Armenia is no exception. It has paralyzed the economy and turned upside down the public health system in every country. Armenia has been fighting the pandemic quite successfully. However, the fatalistic approach of the citizenry to the disease is not making life easy for healthcare providers.

Armenia is already in a no-war no-peace situation which is forcing people not seeing much of a future for their children to emigrate. This is a deliberate war of attrition, the outcome of which Turks and Azerbaijanis can gauge every day. This is low-intensity warfare. No amount of patriotism can stop this trend. Therefore, the war situation and the blockade must be considered external factors of destabilization.

Recently, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, added fuel to this uneasy situation with a declaration favoring Azerbaijan. That blow was long in coming, due to anti-Russian rhetoric and actions in Armenia. Mr. Lavrov shook the foreign policy establishment in Armenia when he stated that a settlement document was on the table and was being discussed between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. He further added that the document called for a phased system of settlement, beginning with the evacuation of Armenian forces from some regions outside the limits of Nagorno Karabakh.

Armenia’s foreign minister, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, denied the existence of such a document under consideration. Traditionally, breakthroughs or major developments in the negotiation process would be reserved for the three chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. The unilateral declaration by Russia indicated that the Kremlin had scores to settle with Armenia. That assumption was further exacerbated by the fact that along with his declaration, Mr. Lavrov had an accompanying reprimand directed to the government in Yerevan because of the lawsuits that Armenia had initiated against Gazprom and the South Caucasus railway system, which are Russian-owned companies operating in Armenia.

This much suffices about external factors destabilizing the country, over which Armenia does not have much leverage.

The abovementioned external factors are compounded by internal ones which could have been controlled through good governance and wise policies.

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To begin with, a campaign was conducted against the Constitutional Court, whose president Hrayr Tovmasyan did not budge. The extremist wing of the Velvet Revolution advocated outright dismissal of the court, but Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, restricted by his commitment to the international community, demurred. An indirect way was devised to hold a referendum, adopt new laws and deal with the impasse.

This controversy took its toll on the new administration, pushing for extreme measures, on the old guard holding on to its position and fighting back, and on the uninformed public caught in-between.

The other draft law which touched off a public debate was about the expropriation of illegally-acquired wealth. This was directed at the members and the clients of the former regime. Had the law not applied retroactively, it would not generate such controversy. Even when the law was being debated at the parliament, former business people (oligarchs) were being arbitrarily jailed and their properties seized to cheering crowds. Populism had hit its peak.

Now another law is being adopted to regulate the news media. In fact, it is a measure to control the runaway opposition media. The regulations contemplated border on censorship, because the former regime, after being overthrown, has taken refuge in the media outlets, from which it is waging quite effectively a media guerrilla warfare. This of course renders the regime very nervous and heightens tempers, leading legislators to engage in street brawls.

Had the new regime taken a more magnanimous position considering the collapse of the former regime sufficient punishment for the old guard and initiated a process of reconciliation, the current polarization could have been avoided. But, true to the Armenian temperament, people were overtaken by maximalism and rancor, all along reassuring everyone that there will not be any vendetta.

Currently, there are two ongoing investigations; a factfinding commission headed by Andranik Kocharyan, president of the defense subcommittee of the parliament, investigating the four-day war with Azerbaijan in April 2016 and another one investigating the riots of 2008, wherein 10 people protesting election results were killed.

Topics: Politics

The latter investigation is running parallel to former President Robert Kocharyan’s legal proceedings. He is already behind bars, even denied the presumption of innocence. The court and the public debate raging around the case have created a circus-like atmosphere in which the public, which has suffered under his rule, is venting its anger.

Robert Kocharyan himself has become a thermometer through which Moscow has been gauging sentiments about Russia in Armenia, while Kocharyan’s tormentors have their one eye directed toward the West, waiting for dividends.

Had these two cases been conducted for the sake of the officially proclaimed reasons, they could claim legitimacy. But since they have been taken out of context to be politicized or to be used for the psychological appeasement of the public, they have led to reactions, and very public ones.

The nervous reaction of the regime to provocations is betraying weakness, and weakness tempts aggression. Indeed, several instances took place recently. They seem unrelated but they certainly were the outcome of the heated situation.

The deputy speaker of the parliament Alen Simonyan had a street brawl with the head of an extremist political group called Adekvat (Adequate), Arthur Danielyan, whose nose was broken. Then there was an attack on Seda Safaryan and her family. Ms. Safaryan is an attorney on the factfinding commission on the March 1 massacre. A fight took place in the Noraduz region involving around one hundred people which resulted in the deaths of two.

The mother of all fights took place in the parliament, where Edmon Marukyan, head of the Bright Armenia group, attacked a national hero, Sasoon Mikayelyan (a member of the My Step alliance), while exchanging insults. The world used to watch such brawls in the Turkish parliament with dismay. Now it is Armenia’s turn.

Marukyan and his entire faction were elected on the coattails of the My Step majority alliance, with the understanding that they will play the role of a docile opposition. But now Marukyan seems to have taken his opposition role seriously.

Following the brawl, the prime minister took the podium to castigate Marukyan for playing into the hands of Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan, and concluded his tirade by stating that this was the first defeat of the revolution, and his own defeat, which should not have taken place.

Desperate groups are fighting the present administration, not allowing time for its consolidation so that it can face its challenges. Kocharyan, Mikayel Minasyan (Sargsyan’s son-in-law, known as Mishik), and Hrayr Tovmasyan all have their tv channels and news outlets to fight the administration. Recently, Arthur Vanetsyan, former head of the National Security Service, joined this movement.

While Armenia is facing existential challenges, the public is polarized and fighting a partisan war.

There is no salvation from any outside quarter. Only common sense can reduce tensions, eliminate polarization and bring some sense of public accord.

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