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How Cohesive Is The Armenian Leadership?

Levon Ter-Petrossian addresses a crowd in Yerevan on September 15.

Two events over the past three weeks -- the landmark visit to Yerevan on September 6 by Turkish President Abdullah Gul and the resignation on September 19 under pressure of parliament speaker Tigran Torosian -- have again focused attention on possible fissures within Armenia's coalition government.

Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian pointed to those perceived disagreements in his address at an opposition rally in Yerevan on September 15. But three days later, National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian, the chairman of one of the four coalition parties, categorically rejected Ter-Petrossian's allegations, claiming the Armenian government "has never been so strong and united" as it is today.

Gul's acceptance of the invitation extended by his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian was widely greeted both within Armenia and abroad as paving the way for a gradual normalization of relations, meaning opening the border between the two countries and establishing formal diplomatic ties.

But the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which is ambivalent about the clause in the Armenian Constitution adopted in summer 1995 abjuring any territorial claims on present-day Turkey, was less enthusiastic. Several hundred of its members staged protests during Gul's visit, and the party subsequently issued a statement advocating caution.

Specifically, the statement stressed the need for Turkey and the international community to acknowledge formally as genocide the killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 as a "first step" toward rapprochement; warned against any concessions to Turkey that could weaken "Armenia's sovereignty, the viability of its existence, or the national and state rights of future generations"; and argued that Turkey must not be allowed to dictate to Armenia conditions for resolving the Karabakh conflict, or seek to "deepen divisions within the South Caucasus."

'Too Passive'

Leading HHD member Vahan Hovannisian explained the party's position to journalists on September 18, criticizing Armenian diplomacy vis-a-vis Turkey as "too passive," and complaining that Turkey is reaping greater benefits from Sarkisian's overture than Armenia is, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

At the same time, Hovannisian downplayed the diverging views between the HHD and its coalition partners and effectively gave his party's blessing to the decision by Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) to oust parliament speaker Torosian. Noting that the constitutional amendments adopted in a referendum in November 2005 enhanced the role of the parliament in political life, Hovannisian argued that in order to capitalize on its increased powers the legislature needs "a decisive and courageous chairman."

Commenting one week earlier on the rumors of Torosian's impending resignation, HHK Deputy Chairman Razmik Zohrabian similarly argued that "a strong person should lead the strong; it never happens that a ram leads an army of lions," Noyan Tapan reported on September 10. Zohrabian did not explain why, if it considered him insufficiently bold and decisive, the HHK selected Torosian as parliament speaker in the first place.

Some observers may take issue with that implicit criticism of Torosian, who has sought doggedly since he was named parliament chairman in June 2007 to strengthen the parliament as an institution. Rumors first emerged in June that the HHK was seeking to replace Torosian with Hovik Abrahamian, who served under President Sarkisian's predecessor, Robert Kocharian, as deputy prime minister and was named in April to head Sarkisian's presidential staff.

Those rumors suggested that the rationale for installing Abrahamian as speaker was to pave the way for Kocharian's appointment as prime minister. Abrahamian, who was elected to parliament just four weeks ago in a constituency previously held by his brother Henrik, is widely perceived to have profited from his closeness to Kocharian in order to acquire "for pennies" several wineries and other enterprises. The daily "Chorrord ishkhanutiun" on September 17 published a list of what it claimed are Abrahamian's total assets. They also reportedly include all intercity transport routes and two apartment buildings in central Yerevan.

Tigran Torosian

'Intrigues And Conspiracies'

Having warned in June that he did not intend to step down voluntarily, Torosian finally capitulated on September 16. He told journalists that "for three or four months everything was being done by means of intrigues and conspiracies behind the scene [to force me to step down]. I would advise certain people to take their 30 pieces of silver and continue on their way."

Citing "irreconcilable differences with the parliament majority on a number of issues concerning the country's domestic political life," Torosian said he had submitted his resignation from the HHK, but intended to retain his parliament mandate as an independent deputy. He formally resigned as parliament speaker on September 19.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Zohrabian denied the existence of any "irreconcilable differences" between Torosian and the HHK leadership. Zohrabian also said Torosian was offered various government or diplomatic posts in exchange for his resignation as speaker, including that of minister for the diaspora.

The HHK has formally proposed Abrahamian to succeed Torosian as speaker, but the parliament has not yet voted on his candidacy. Nor, according to "Hraparak" on September 20, has Abrahamian yet attended a parliament session. "They say he wants to enter the National Assembly as parliament speaker and does not want to take the seat of a rank-and-file deputy," the paper commented.

Torosian's replacement was adduced on September 15 by former President Ter-Petrossian as evidence of growing cracks within the "pyramid of power" as a result of what Ter-Petrossian termed "the redistribution of administrative resources and influence, as well as property and wealth." Addressing a rally in Yerevan attended by thousands of his supporters, Ter-Petrossian contrasted Abrahamian unfavorably with Torosian: "Tigran Torosian is not a child of the criminal world, and by appointing Hovik Abrahamian they have finally criminalized the parliament," RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as saying.

Rumors And Opinions

Ter-Petrossian also focused on the differences he said exist between Sarkisian and Kocharian. He claimed that rumors about Kocharian's plans to return active politics by becoming prime minister are fueled by Kocharian's close associates and are directed against Sarkisian.

"The opinion is being disseminated that Serzh Sarkisian is unable to restrain the popular opposition movement, that he will lose power soon, and that the whole underworld will lose everything. They say Robert Kocharian is the only salvation for these people who own huge riches," Ter-Petrossian said. Sarkisian, in turn, is aware that he stands to be stripped of real power and reduced to a figurehead if he does name Kocharian prime minister, according to Ter-Petrossian.

Ter-Petrossian cited the HHD's opposition to Gul's visit to Yerevan as a further sign of weakness and indecision on Sarkisian's part, arguing that Sarkisian's failure to expel the HHD from the governing coalition testifies to his inability to control the current situation.

We don't think we can simply demand and he will resign. Nobody resigns in that way.
Whether the broad opposition movement that Ter-Petrossian heads could profit from the perceived friction within the country's leadership remains doubtful, however. True, Ter-Petrossian's close aide Levon Zurabian told journalists on September 11 that "tens of thousands" of people are flocking to join the umbrella Armenian National Congress (HAK) inaugurated by Ter-Petrossian early last month, and which has opened local offices in each of Yerevan's electoral districts and in Armenia's 10 provinces. But at a press conference on September 2, Ter-Petrossian sounded a cautious note, making clear that he will not seek to stage the kind of "color revolution" that toppled the ruling regimes in Georgia and Ukraine. He implied that the opposition is preparing for a more prolonged and "civilized" struggle.

"For me, the main slogan or the essence of our activity is the strengthening of the movement, the development of the congress, which will automatically lead to regime change and Serzh Sarkisian's resignation, he said. "We don't think we can simply demand and he will resign. Nobody resigns in that way."

Tide Of Confrontation

The biggest challenge Ter-Petrossian faces is to sustain, if not build upon the popular support he mustered during the February presidential ballot (in which according to official returns he placed second to Sarkisian with 21.5 percent of the vote) over the next 2 1/2 years until the parliamentary elections due in 2011.

Writing on September 19 in "Hayots ashkhar," political analyst Aleksandr Iskanderian predicted that "if the opposition fails to create a powerful tide of confrontation, and that does not seem likely, then everything will be as it always is in such cases: there will be groups of people who criticize the authorities, unite in one common network, continue to oppose the regime, but their potential will not be sufficient to stage a revolution.... Moreover, their numbers will keep dwindling and they will not be able to accomplish any more than they have managed to do so far."

And as former Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan pointed out in an interview published on September 19 in the opposition daily "Aravot," even if the standoff between Sarkisian and Kocharian precipitates a pre-term presidential election, "there is no guarantee" that the ballot will be fair.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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