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Armenia's Long, Hot Political Summer

  • Richard Giragosian

An opposition supporter at a Yerevan protest after the vote in February

An opposition supporter at a Yerevan protest after the vote in February

With the onset of a traditionally hot summer, Armenia remains susceptible to months of political volatility.

Since the inauguration less than three months ago of Serzh Sarkisian as Armenia's third president, the confrontation between the new leadership and the opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian has shown little sign of abating.

The country faces a simmering political crisis rooted in the mass protests that followed the controversial February 19 presidential election in which official returns showed Sarkisian polling over 52 percent of the vote versus 21.5 percent for former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Those protests culminated in a violent clash between opposition demonstrators and riot police on March 1-2 that left at least 10 people dead and many injured.

After imposing a state of emergency reinforced by sweeping restrictions on the freedoms of press and assembly, outgoing President Robert Kocharian left office burdened by a sudden unpopularity in reaction to what was widely regarded as an unjustifiable overreaction to opposition demonstrations.

But most importantly, after eight years of holding the country's highest post, Kocharian bequeathed his successor a dangerous legacy of distrust and discontent. Sarkisian has inherited a "crisis of confidence" that has eroded confidence in the government and faces a further challenge in the form of public demands for change.

Moreover, three crucial new developments have contributed to a political crisis unprecedented in Armenia's recent history.

Series Of Tests

Sarkisian's first impediment is a distinctly new political context insofar as the population has emerged from years of apathy to voice fresh and strident demands for change. This means there can be no return to the pre-election status quo, as the Armenian people have expressed a new sense of impatience and outrage.

The most visible affirmation of a public no longer mired in apathy and passivity has been the opposition's success in maintaining its political momentum through rallies and demonstrations. On June 20, in the first opposition demonstration following the lifting of the state of emergency, Ter-Petrossian was able to mobilize thousands of supporters in Yerevan.

That initiative posed a crucial two-part test for the opposition and its leaders. It was, first and foremost, a test of numbers -- an indication as to whether the public had the appetite for sustaining the protests into the hot summer. It was also a test of resolve pitting the authorities against the opposition, as a detachment of riot police initially attempted to deny access to the planned venue before backing down at the last minute in the face of the crowd's determination. That very public, last-minute backdown by police emboldened the demonstrators. It also tended to validate the opposition decision to proceed with the unsanctioned rally after the municipal authorities' attempt to contain the rally by only granting permission to use a remote sports arena.

That initial success was followed a week later by a demonstration in Gyumri, the country's second-largest city. Several thousand Ter-Petrossian supporters turned out despite inclement weather. The Gyumri city authorities granted official permission and police maintained a respectful distance with no interference.

Despite the limitations of such rallies in achieving concrete political demands, they provide the opposition with a mechanism for maintaining momentum, and they exert a very public pressure on the government. With these goals in mind, the opposition is planning another rally on July 4, coinciding with a traditional diplomatic reception at the U.S. Embassy celebrating American independence that is usually attended by much of Armenia's political and business elite.

The second impediment facing Sarkisian stems not from the opposition but from the inherent limits on his own power and authority. In other words, just as the Armenian people have been reinvigorated by a new sense of dynamic activism, the Armenian government finds itself hobbled by an equally new and somewhat overwhelming unpopularity and skepticism. This is, at least in part, rooted in the opaque nature of the Armenian political system, where dissent is seen as a direct threat to the state rather than as characteristic of a healthy democracy. Within such a closed political system, there is no mechanism for expressing political discontent, a lack that exacerbates underlying tensions. Consequently, the crisis is likely to become more acute in the coming months.

Third, Sarkisian faces another new rival than just the freshly united opposition. Surprisingly, while that rival is a former president, it is not Ter-Petrossian but rather Sarkisian's out-of-office -- but not out-of power -- predecessor, Kocharian, who is still exerting influence over the government. Kocharian succeeded in implanting within Sarkisian's team one of his most loyal henchmen, former presidential chief of staff Armen Gevorgian, while a second long-time Kocharian associate, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, who has repeatedly argued that the March 1 crackdown was entirely justified, remains in his post. Kocharian is thus still in a position to wield influence from within to preempt decisions counter to his power or interests.

Turning A Page

Kocharian's ability to shape the political agenda is likely to prove fleeting insofar as it is based on his personal influence over key parliament deputies and one of the four parties in the coalition government, Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia). Such parliamentary power, although effective in the short term, is unsustainable over the medium term since deputies naturally gravitate to the official center of power. It is a political maxim that that power erodes without position over the long term and Kocharian -- unlike his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin -- does not hold the premiership. Sarkisian is growing stronger every day, while his predecessor's influence is eroding.

Managing the Kocharian challenge is a more manageable task for the current president. The deeper and more fundamental impediments come from the government's more lasting degree of weakness and disability.

Moreover, the Armenian government must now learn to govern -- not just rule -- the country. Yet it is disabled by its weakness and undermined by a lack of legitimacy and an absence of any real popular mandate. This not only calls into question the authority of the state, but also seriously erodes the government's capacity to implement the difficult policies needed to satisfy mounting demands for change and expectations for reform.

Thus as the political crisis remains far from resolved and likely only to continue, the hot Armenian summer of 2008 may usher in a potentially unprecedented autumn of change, possibly marking the last page of this chapter of Armenian politics.

Richard Giragosian is an independent analyst specializing in international relations, economics, military security, and political developments in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. Based in Yerevan, he is a contributing analyst for the London-based Jane's Information Group, among others. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL