The dialogue between the Armenian coalition and opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) that began last month
is in danger of collapse, raising the specter of a new wave of potentially destabilizing opposition protests. The HAK has suspended its participation in the talks to protest the continued detention of one of its youth activists following a standoff with Yerevan police
The talks between the two camps began in mid-July following repeated demands by the HAK that the leadership of President Serzh Sarkisian should resign and schedule early presidential and parliamentary elections. The HAK negotiating team failed to show up on August 26 for the seventh round of talks without notifying the government delegation in advance of its intention.
In a statement read out at a news conference later the same day, Levon Zurabian, the head of the HAK's five-person negotiating team, accused the authorities of failing to deliver on a pledge to secure the release from detention of Tigran Arakelian, one of seven HAK youth-wing activists taken into custody on August 9 after a standoff with police in a Yerevan park.
The other six activists have been released on bail. But Armenia's Appeals Court declined to free Arakelian, who faces three charges of assault and hooliganism.
Zurabian said the existence of "political prisoners," meaning Arakelian, made the continuation of the dialogue "impossible." He accused the authorities of "doing everything to torpedo this dialogue." At the same time, the HAK affirmed its readiness to resume talks if Arakelian is set free.
The HAK had threatened immediately after the seven activists' arrest to quit the dialogue
if they were not released, but did not make good on that threat.
The government negotiating team responded on August 26 with a formal statement branding "a clear lie" the HAK accusation that it had reneged on an undertaking to have Arakelian released. That statement expressed regret that the HAK accusation undermines the coalition's trust
in its opposition interlocutors.
Former Justice Minister David Harutiunian denied any promise had been made.
Zurabian had said after the previous meeting on August 23, which lasted for five hours, that the HAK representatives were confident that Arakelian would be released "quickly."
But his opposite number from the government group, parliament member and former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, apparently did not make any such specific promise. Harutiunian told journalists only that his working group was confident that the judicial system had not "acted in a discriminatory manner" with regard to Arakelian and would not do so
Harutiunian said the group "will not seek to interfere
" in the judicial process. Indeed, Harutiunian, as a former justice minister, must be acutely aware that the executive branch is not empowered to interfere in the workings of the judiciary.
The HAK ultimatum raises the question: is the bloc deliberately trying to ratchet up the pressure on the ruling coalition as the September deadline for "concrete results" from the dialogue approaches?
Speaking in Yerevan on August 2, HAK leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian had warned
that "if the authorities don't finally make a choice on the conduct of early elections in the next one or two months, then the reasonable time frame will be deemed to have expired in September, and only one demand will remain on our agenda: namely the unconditional resignation of Serzh Sarkisian and the ruling coalition."
The HAK duly put forward on August 9 at the fourth round of talks an 87-page document substantiating its case
for the need to hold early elections. The authorities responded with even more extensive written counterarguments
Or did the HAK inadvertently read more into Harutiunian's assurances than was warranted?
Either way, the HAK argument that the authorities are at fault for not "bending the rules" to secure Arakelian's release is disingenuous: in any other circumstances, the HAK would not have hesitated to condemn unequivocally any indication of interference by the executive in the workings of the judiciary.