The political standoff between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his most serious political rival, the leader of the opposition party Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BHK) Gagik Tsarukian, has ended with the latter backing away from his calls early this month to mobilize the population in a push for pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections if the authorities insist on proceeding with controversial proposals to transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic.
In a statement on February 18, one day after a clandestine meeting with the president, Tsarukian affirmed the need to resolve political problems "through peaceful, lawful and political means." But Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) nonetheless reportedly still intends to strip Tsarukian, one of Armenia's wealthiest entrepreneurs, of his parliamentary mandate on the grounds of absenteeism and to have his numerous businesses audited in light of suspicions of tax evasion.
What is more, Tsarukian's volte-face appears to have dealt the coup de grace to the tenuous tactical alignment between the BHK and its opposition partners, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party. On February 20, at a small public rally of his supporters, Zharangutiun chairman Raffi Hovannisian declared that, in light of the "truce" concluded between Tsarukian and Sarkisian, the alignment no longer exists. Hovannisian added, however, that he is "open to cooperation" with any political party or groups seeking regime change and reiterated his demand that Sarkisian resign.
Officially, the BHK claims that the catalyst for the standoff was the government's planned constitutional reform that the BHK, the HAK, and Zharangutiun are convinced is geared toward enabling Sarkisian, 60, to remain in power as either prime minister or parliament speaker after his second presidential term ends in the spring of 2018.
The constitutional reform "concept," calling for a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister and largely ceremonial head of state, was unveiled for public discussion in October 2014. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission gave a generally positive assessment, saying the proposed changes would "strengthen democratic principles and establish the necessary conditions for ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights." At the same time, the commission noted that the transition to a parliamentary republic requires "broad consensus within society."
Sarkisian's press secretary Arman Saghatelian said on October 17 that the decision on whether to proceed with the reform would not be taken before February-March 2015. "Given that some issues discussed in the concept have a pronounced political component, additional political discussions and a greater political consolidation are expected in connection with them," Saghatelian told Tert.am.
No Common Agenda
The BHK, the HAK, and Zharangutiun responded jointly by announcing the creation across the country of organizing bodies to mobilize the population to demand regime change. But the BHK was consistently more hesitant than its partners in explicitly demanding President Sarkisian's resignation and pre-term presidential elections, leading Zharangutiun chairman and former Foreign Minister Hovannisian to comment that the three parties still lacked a common agenda.
In late December, Tsarukian spokeswoman Iveta Tonoyan said the BHK planned to convene "a political conference," to which nonparliamentary parties too would be invited, to discuss what further steps to take. Addressing that gathering on February 5, Tsarukian painted a bleak picture of the socioeconomic situation in Armenia, and warned that the BHK and its opposition allies would launch a campaign for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections unless Sarkisian drops his plans to amend the constitution.
Just two days after that conference, BHK activist Artak Khachatrian was attacked and beaten on the street in Yerevan. The BHK publicly accused the HHK of orchestrating that attack and threatened a boycott of parliamentary proceedings by its 37-member faction (the second largest after the HHK).
Then on February 12, Sarkisian launched an ad hominem attack on Tsarukian that was broadcast live on national television, branding him "evil," "a scourge," and "illiterate]." He said Tsarukian lacked the intelligence to govern Armenia, and that his continued membership of the political elite of a country at war is a liability.
However, perhaps the real reason for the president's attack on Tsarukian could lie in the timing -- just days after Tsarurkian flew to Moscow to meet with legislators from Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. That visit was seen by many close to Sarkisian as an open attempt to secure Russian support for a bid to undermine him.
Some even worried that, in the aftermath of the killing of an Armenian family in Gyumri in January -- allegedly by a rogue Russian deserter, Tsarukian, and perhaps former President Robert Kocharian, who is regarded as the "godfather" of the BHK, would seek to convince the Putin camp in Moscow that the Armenian leadership is no longer reliable, and to pledge their own loyalty to Putin in exchange for a Russian-backed coup.
Sarkisian's possible anger and outrage at that presumed scenario would explain the vehement and vindictive tone of his diatribe against Tsarukian. He demanded that Tsarukian be stripped of his parliamentary mandate, given that he attended only four of the 145 parliament sessions in 2013-2014, and instructed Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian (whose son is married to one of Tsarukian's daughters) to set in motion an audit of Tsarukian's businesses in light of long-standing rumors that Tsarukian was withholding "billions" in taxes under the guise of donations to charity.
Sarkisian reaffirmed his commitment to the constitutional reform, but did not give any indication when preparations for the required nationwide referendum on it would start. For good measure, Sarkisian then signed a decree removing Tsarukian from the National Security Council.
Tsarukian initially showed himself defiant, saying on February 13 that he was more concerned about "forfeiting the people's trust" than being stripped of his parliamentary mandate. "I am taking up the gauntlet and am going to fight until victory," he told an emergency meeting with senior BHK figures. He went on to call for "nationwide mobilization with a single goal: to achieve Serzh Sarkisian's resignation and get rid of this government of evil through all legal political methods such as nonstop rallies, marches, demonstrations, and civil disobedience."
Tsarukian also claimed that Sarkisian had sought to persuade him to endorse the proposed constitutional reforms in return for a promise that he would become Armenia's next, largely ceremonial president.
Following separate consultations between Tsarukian and the leaders of the HAK and Zharangutiun, the three parties announced on February 15 that they would stage a mass rally in Yerevan on February 20 to demand Sarkisian's resignation. The Yerevan city council, however, refused to give permission for that gathering.
The tensions were finally defused by a personal meeting between Sarkisian and Tsarukian on February 17 mediated by the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which was briefly part of the coalition government formed after Sarkisian was first elected president in 2008. The HHD supports Sarkisian's proposed constitutional reform, and has urged other opposition forces to do likewise.
No details have been divulged of the February 17 tete-a-tete, but it appears that Tsarukian was either pressured or persuaded to back down. The BHK called off the rally planned for February 20, and 19 BHK members and activists whom police had rounded up in the wake of Tsarukian's call for nonstop protests were released.
Whether or not Tsarukian has forfeited all political credibility, the HHK nonetheless appears determined to proceed with the disciplinary measures against him and the audit of his business empire.
Tenuous Alliance Shattered
Meanwhile, the future of the BHK remains unclear. Two BHK parliament faction members quit the party on February 16, and two more the following day, reducing the grouping to 33 members. Political analyst Sergei Minasian has predicted that the BHK will no longer remain Armenia's second most powerful political force.
It is conceivable that the BHK may split, with Kocharian assuming leadership of the breakaway wing. That is unlikely, however: even though many mid-level and rank and file BHK members are clearly frustrated by Tsarukian's sudden decision to back down, the party is simply too dependent on top-down leadership, and despite Kocharian's looming presence and patronage, left with little real alternative.
As noted above, the events of the past week have effectively demolished the tenuous alliance between the BHK, the HAK, and Zharangutiun. Zharangutiun chairman Hovannisian has announced that he will hold a press conference on Yerevan's Freedom Square on February 27. The HAK, for its part, is planning a rally on March 1 to "analyse the situation that has arisen and unveil future plans.".
It is more than questionable, however, whether HAK leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, now marginalized and desperate, could again emerge as an acknowledged opposition leader as he did in 2011. On February 19, Ter-Petrossian appealed for "popular assistance and support" for Tsarukian and attributed his "political mistakes" to Tsarukian's lack of experience and to the activities of "a bunch of troublemakers inside the BHK" who , he claimed, are pursuing a separate agenda.
Yet the events of the past two weeks also reveal a deeper deficiency in Armenian democracy. The underlying problem is not just that crises and confrontations in Armenian politics remain driven and dominated by personalities rather than policies. Rather the inherent problem stems from the closed political system in general, and the lack of real political parties, more specifically.
Central to this problem is the nature and privileged role in Armenian politics of the "ruling party." That status bestows not only political power, but also economic privilege, a patronage network, the opportunity to impose restrictions on political discourse and debate, and the so-called "administrative resources" crucial to retaining power in subsequent elections.
Consequently, the political strategy of both the HAK and the BHK is largely driven by the pursuit of power, with the objective of replacing the present government to become the new ruling party.
In other words, the struggle for power eclipses ideology and political programs: opposition parties rarely propose any meaningful or practical policy alternatives. The loser in this struggle is, of course, the Armenian electorate, which is left with few opportunities to express its views and even less choice between political options.
-- Liz Fuller & Richard Giragosian