Armenia’s Political Fragmentation amid Pandemic

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Armenia initially faced the coronavirus pandemic successfully, but now it seems that the situation is getting out of hand. Even Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his family members have been infected with the virus, leaving the country in survival mode.

In view of the critical situation, the first president of the republic, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who seldom comments on political developments, has issued a stern warning on ilur.am under the title of “Simple Syllogism.” In it he says, “1. Coronavirus has declared war on Armenia. 2. The burden of conducting the war falls on the shoulders of the leaders. 3. Whoever is fighting against the leadership, willingly or unwillingly, betrays the nation. The domestic political infighting during the war is madness, which has no justification.”

Ter-Petrosyan believes he has the moral responsibility to sound the alarm at moments of crisis. He did so also during the four-day war in April 2016, advising people to rally around the government of President Serzh Sargsyan, whom he did not like.

Surprisingly, very few people heeded his warning the last time around. On the contrary, many voices, from the ruling party and opposition quarters, joined to criticize him.

A realignment of political forces was in the offing before the virus struck. One dramatic development was the sustained effort toward the elimination of corruption, including illegal ways of amassing wealth and vote buying. However, before reforms could be implemented, the country was hamstrung by COVID-19.

The Pashinyan administration, while grappling with domestic problems, was also challenged in the foreign policy realm. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements on April 21 continue to reverberate in political circles and the news media. On that date Lavrov had stated that the negotiation process conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group could be stopped. Instead, he proposed a phased solution to the Karabakh conflict, with the first step being the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the areas outside Karabakh. Then, just to stress where Russia stood with regard to Armenia, he refused to lower the price of Russian gas, even when there is a glut of energy on the world market. He concluded his remarks by warning the Armenian government to stop its lawsuits against Russian interests in Armenia, namely challenges against Gazprom and the railway system.

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Perhaps emboldened by Mr. Lavrov’s unfriendly remarks, Azerbaijan held war games in the Nakhichevan exclave, featuring modern Turkish weaponry. The specter of war began looming over the horizon.

These developments created an atmosphere of siege in Armenia and Artsakh. Analysts have to work hard in the next weeks and months to unearth the impact of those external factors on domestic politics, which suddenly took a dramatic turn. Within a short period of time, defections appeared among the ranks of the groups which had originally supported the revolution.

The Velvet Revolution began strictly based on a domestic agenda. Foreign policy stances taken after Pashinyan assumed power became a major factor in the splintering of his base post-revolution.

The first group to defect was the Bright Armenia party, led by Edmon Marukyan. The party was elected into parliament by pretending to play the role of a docile opposition but turned viciously against the ruling My Step coalition.

Marukyan’s group began systematically voting against Pashinyan’s positions and Marukyan himself instigated a fistfight on the parliament floor recently.

Arman Babajanyan, a solo player with a mysterious political agenda, joined Bright Armenia to qualify for running for a parliament seat. After he won, he quit that party to become an independent member. Ever since, he has been wearing the mantel of “the defender of the revolution” and has been engaged in a fight to unseat the members of the Constitutional Court. His foreign policy hinges on a single agenda item: to liberate Armenia from its “vassal relationship” with Russia.

He first tried to recruit to his campaign several veteran political warriors, to no avail. Recently, he gathered like-minded pundits and academics in front of the Matenadaran, all dressed in white shirts in Nazi style, when he announced the formation of a new political group, which he named “In Defense of the Republic.” The goal of the group is to emerge eventually as a political party, with a name to be determined later. Babajanyan refuses to cooperate with any group or individual that has been associated with the old regime and considers Pashinyan to be derelict in his pledge unless he cleans out the Constitutional Court.

Another group not satisfied with the Pashinyan administration’s performance is composed of diverse political elements. One of those elements is Ara Papian, a scholar and diplomat who in a way has assumed the role of spokesperson. The group is called National Democratic Pole (Azgayin Joghovertavarakan Bever). Papian has joined forces with the Sasna Tserer party, headed by Jiraryr Sefilyan, commander of the forces that liberated Shushi. Last but not least, is filmmaker Tigran Xmalyan [Khzmalyan], president of the European Party.

Mr. Papian contends that Armenia needs a party with a nationalistic ideology as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation was eliminated from the political scene following its defeat in the recent parliamentary elections.

Sasna Tserer is a controversial party open to the use of violence, which led the group to take over a police station, killing the police chief. Besides Sefilyan, other prominent members are Varoujan Avetissyan and Garegin Chukaszyan.

Recently, in the same talk show, while Chukaszyan admitted to having received grants from funding sources including George Soros’ Open Society, Papian stated that he saw no evil in using such grant money, which does not entail any “political commitments.”

The Sasna Tserer leadership complains that it has a program which is being impossible to sell to the new government.

Sasna Tserer believes that Pashinyan has not extended the revolution to Artsakh. Tigran Xmalyan and the others by association, believe that Armenia’s place is in the NATO structure. They also would like to see Armenia sever its “colonial relationship” with Russia.

On the opposition front, no visible force exists yet. The Republican Party of Serzh Sargsyan is still hanging on as an opposition party, though reduced to a shell of its former self.

The former president still heads the party, with former leaders Edward Sharmazanov and Armen Ashodyan regularly offering a run-of-the mill criticism of the ruling party. No other group tries to come close to the Republican Party, which suffered a spectacular defeat in the last election.

The new kid on the block is Artur Vanetsyan, the most vocal member of the opposition, who has formed a new party called Homeland (Hayrenik). Vanetsyan was the head of the National Security Services and was dismissed by Pashinyan. He does not seem to have a clear political agenda, except criticizing the current administration.

In solidarity with him is Michael Minasyan (Mishik), son-in-law of the former president. He is considered to be a fugitive and accused of enriching himself illegally. He has been releasing video clips from his kitchen table, accusing Pashinyan and his family members of scandalous activities.

A small yet forceful group calls itself Adekvat [Adequate], composed of well-informed and articulate young members who do not seem to have any affiliation with other political groups. Artur Danielyan, who does not shy away from physical confrontations with government representatives, heads it.

Thus far, there had been no coordination amongst this diverse group until Gagik Tsarukyan, the head of Prosperous Armenia Party, emerged with a call for the resignation of the government and began networking among the opposition groups. During his party’s general assembly, he announced that until now, he believed that 97 percent of the government should resign. Now he said, he has come to the conclusion that 100 percent had to resign.

Tsarukyan is a colorful political animal with a checkered past. He is a millionaire with the reputation of a benefactor who expects a bang for his buck.

Tsarukyan’s party supported the previous government and thus was able to garner seats in parliament. Later he had a fall-out with President Sargsyan, who in a scathing speech threatened to destroy his business empire. Following that confrontation, Tsarukyan publicly vowed that he was retiring from politics. That decision lasted until Pashinyan overthrew Sargsyan’s government. Tsarukyan then declared his support for Pashinyan’s campaign and, in his good graces, he was elected to the parliament. His faction vowed to play the role of pseudo-opposition, but as critical voices began to get louder and louder, he joined the opposition.

Although most of the time Tsarukyan’s actions and remarks have been met with sarcastic smiles, this time around, his move has shaken the government, which has rushed to mobilize all its forces to stop him.

Not only did the pro-government media begin a salvo of criticisms and attacks, but they reached out to really inflict pain. The online outlet armtimes.am published the court proceedings of a 1979 case, in which Tsarukyan was sentenced to seven years in prison for participating in a gang rape.

Like its preceding government, the prime minister’s office warned Tsarukyan: “Mr. Tsarukyan must have a cause for concern after the parliament adopted a law which will authorize the government to confiscate illegally acquired wealth.”

This is a controversial law which can only satisfy those who hold a grudge against the affluent class. Other than that, it will motivate the former oligarchs to fight back and cause Armenian capital to leave the country. It is a propos to remember Winston Churchill’s adage: “You don’t make the poor richer by making the rich poor.”

This statement alludes to the ideological heart of socialism, as applied in the Soviet Union. The Marxist ideology in the USSR tried to create equality in poverty while China has created equality in affluence.

Tsarukyan’s challenge will intensify tensions politically. The ARF has yet to associate with any opposition group. It has released a statement calling for the formation of a special parliamentary committee to address the crisis.

The recent shake-up in ranks of the armed forces in Armenia will not help stabilize the situation. Three prominent figures in law enforcement and the army have lost their jobs. Pashinyan has sacked the chief of staff of the armed forces, Artak Davtyan, replacing him with Onik Gasparyan.

Also dismissed are the director of National Security Services Eduard Martirosyan and Chief of Police Arman Sargsyan, replaced by Argishti Kyaramyan and Vahe Ghazaryan, respectively.

It seems that troubling times are ahead and we have to refer once more to President Ter-Petrosyan’s warning.

Armenians have always been fiercely individualistic, undermining the nation’s collective independence. Heeding Ter-Petrosyan’s advice may contribute to the collective independence of the Armenian nation.

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NOTE: In an earlier version of this article, inadvertently through the editing process it was erroneously stated that Ara Papian received grant money from the Soros Foundation. This is corrected in the above version.

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