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Armenia Stuck Between Stagnation And 'Mubarakization'

More than 10,000 opposition supporters rallied in the center of Yerevan on March 1.
More than 10,000 opposition supporters rallied in the center of Yerevan on March 1.
The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) last week announced a new wave of antigovernment rallies aimed at forcing the authorities to schedule pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections or risk "Mubarakization," meaning being ousted in a popular uprising similar to those in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. But yesterday's rally in Yerevan, marking the third anniversary of the violence that ended 10 days of protests against the perceived rigging of the presidential ballot in which according to official returns HAK leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian placed only second, failed to serve as the catalyst for continuous mass protests.

True, the HAK plans to convene more such demonstrations on a regular basis. Ter-Petrossian gave the country's leadership until March 15 to deliver on a list of demands, including the dismissal of the prime minister and the release of all persons HAK considers political prisoners. But many analysts consider Ter-Petrossian, who has been predicting the imminent downfall of the current regime on a regular basis for the past two years, a spent force. They see infighting within the three-party coalition government as a more real threat to incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian in the run-up to parliamentary elections due in May 2012 and the presidential election in February 2013.

Leaders of the three coalition parties aligned signed a new memorandum on cooperation on February 17 pledging not to compete against each other in the May 2012 parliamentary elections and to back incumbent President Sarkisian for a second term in the presidential elections the following year. Opposition parties and individual politicians across the political spectrum have slammed that agreement as implying that the three parties -- Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), oligarch Gagik Tsarukian's Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BHK), and National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law party) -- intend to orchestrate the outcome of both polls to their own advantage. Whether the opposition's indignation can be parlayed into a broad coalition alliance for the 2012 parliamentary elections remains an open question, however.

The February 17 memorandum notes the coalition's success over the past three years in ensuring stability despite the August 2008 war over South Ossetia and the global economic crisis. It affirms the parties' shared commitment to unity in the face of unspecified external threats, and to giving new impetus to ongoing reforms aimed at "progressive development" and raising living standards.

It stresses that none of the three parties aspires in the 2012 parliamentary election to increase its parliamentary representation at the expense of the other two. At the same time, it predicts that the systematic implementation of reforms will increase public trust in the government, a trust that will allegedly be reflected in an even larger share of parliament mandates for the coalition parties in the next election.

At present, HHK has 63 seats in the 131-member National Assembly, the BHK -- 26, and Orinats Yerkir -- eight, giving the pro-government coalition a comfortably overwhelming majority of 97 seats in the 131-seat parliament. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which joined the coalition in 2008 but quit a year later to protest the terms on which Sarkisian sought to establish formal relations with Turkey, holds 16 mandates, and the sole opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party represented in the parliament, led by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, has seven seats.

It was the overly confident assertion that the ruling coalition should have no problem in increasing its parliamentary representation that outraged the Armenian opposition, insofar as it implies that that the outcome of that vote has already been determined, and that in order to achieve it, the authorities will again resort to the kind of procedural violations that marred the previous parliamentary ballot in May 2007. On that occasion, the OSCE/ODIHR monitoring mission concluded that while "the elections for the National Assembly were conducted largely in accordance with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic election, however, the stated intention by the Armenian authorities to conduct an election in line with OSCE commitments and international standards was not fully realized."

The OSCE/ODIHR report went on to detail shortcomings related to campaign regulation and deliberate blatant violations by precinct election commission personnel witnessed by observers during the vote count and tabulation, including moving ballots between piles, adding in invalid ballot papers, and amending or entirely rewriting protocols listing the number of votes cast for individual political parties.

Gagik Tsarukian (left), Serzh Sarkisian, and Artur Baghdasarian sign a memorandum of cooperation in Yerevan on February 17.

Both former President Robert Kocharian and BHK leader Tsarukian have recently affirmed in public statements the need to ensure that the May 2012 ballot is free, fair, and democratic. "Elections must not disrupt the political calm, must not split Armenian society. Political forces in our country must fight exclusively in accordance with the democratic rules of the game," Tsarukian told a BHK party congress on February 12.

But in a statement posted on February 18 on the website of the Civilitas Foundation that he now heads, former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian argued that the coalition memorandum "highlights the authorities' disregard of democracy, elections and the public will…The ruling coalition has openly declared that in the upcoming parliamentary elections they are not prepared to do what political forces are fundamentally meant to do: that is, to enter into open competition."

Vahan Hovannisian, who heads the HHD parliament faction, pointed out on February 18 that the wording of the coalition memorandum implies that the coalition will field a single list of candidates for the 90 parliament seats allocated under the proportional system. But on February 21, both Tsarukian's spokesman Khachik Galstian and HHK deputy chairman Razmik Zohrabian told journalists that the decision whether or not to field a single list of candidates will depend on how the political situation evolves. Galstian predicted that if the three parties compete separately, "their votes will be added up, and as a result, the coalition will have a greater representation in the National Assembly."

Two other prominent HHD members, Armen Rustamian and Hrant Markarian, said the party will launch a broad-based campaign to raise public awareness of the pernicious consequences of electoral fraud and vote-buying. Rustamian stressed that the HHD is ready to cooperate in promoting free and fair elections with any and all opposition forces, including the HAK.

HAK spokesman Levon Zurabian dismissed Rustamian's offer out of hand on February 24, accusing the HHD of "actively participating" in election fraud in the past.

The February 17 memorandum has been widely construed as a strategic concession by Tsarukian, whom many observers hitherto suspected might leave the coalition and align with former President Kocharian to facilitate the latter's return to big time politics. Yet the antagonism between the ruling HHK and BHK remains profound, reflecting the natural rivalry between Sarkisian and Kocharian. To date, however, their differences and divisions have largely been expressed through a fight by proxy, with neither man openly or directly attacking the other, at least not publicly.

That deeper conflict surfaced last month in the form of a war of words between the two rival camps, with Tsarukian stating in an interview that Kocharian could, if he wished, have easily "taken over" the HHK. After that comment triggered indignation and uproar from leading HHK members, Kocharian himself went even further by claiming that he personally approved of each and every decision and appointment within the HHK during his tenure. Despite a subsequent retreat by Tsarukian that was capped by his signature on the new coalition pledge only 10 days later, the wounds remain fresh.

This deeper division is disquieting, for two reasons. First, this is the first time in Armenian political history that the real conflict is within the ruling coalition itself, and not the traditional Armenian confrontation between the authorities and the opposition. This reflects not simply a divergence of interests, but also an increasingly heated competition for power.

Secondly, it is significant in terms of timing. With a new election cycle approaching, the conflict has been driven underground, with the superficial coalition agreement merely serving to paper over public differences. In addition, pressure from rising food prices, widening disparities of wealth and income, and a bleak economic outlook are combining to place an added burden on the government, which is already weakened by a lack of legitimacy. In fact, this economic pressure is more serious than any challenges from the virtual political stalemate that has polarized Armenian society since the 2008 postelection crisis.

Against this backdrop, Ter-Petrossian warned on February 18 of the possible "Mubarakization" of Armenia, drawing parallels with the recent revolutionary unrest in Egypt, where socioeconomic demands spurred the downfall of what many assumed was an authoritarian but stable regime. For Sarkisian, the imperative now is steering a course of between stagnation and "Mubarakization." This would entail not just embarking on reforms radical enough to meet at least partially mounting popular demands for real change and deeper reform, including at least some of the demands Ter-Petrossian tabled on March 1, but also a new dose of bold political will. Above all, Sarkisian should finally move to circumscribe, if not neutralize, the power and wealth of the country's now entrenched oligarchs and corrupted vested interests, although this may be too much to expect.

At the same time, the Armenian government is also facing renewed pressure over Nagorno-Karabakh, especially as Sarkisian's gamble on forging a foreign policy success with Turkey fell flat after Turkey failed to live up to expectations. The leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement two weeks ago panning a recent International Crisis Group report that called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign a document on the basic principles for resolving the conflict peacefully and undertake confidence-building steps to reduce tensions and avert a resumption of fighting.

Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian greets supporters at a rally in Yerevan on March 1.

The first indications that Sarkisian was embarking on a new course came in early December, when he forced the resignation of Yerevan Mayor Gagik Beglarian after a scandal involving an alleged assault on a presidential administration official. The municipal council then approved Sarkisian's nominee, Karen Karapetian, 47, chief executive of the Armenian-Russian gas distribution company ArmRosGazprom, who placed fifth on the HHK's official ticket during the May 2009 municipal elections, to replace Beglarian.

Sarkisian then launched a cabinet reshuffle involving three key ministries, dismissing Economy Minister Nerses Yeritsian, appointing current Finance Minister Tigran Davtian as his successor, and naming Armenian Central Bank official Vache Gabrielian as the new finance minister. Party leaders also endorsed the president's choice of Hrair Tovmasian as the new justice minister, filling a position that remained vacant since Gevorg Danielian was fired on December 9 for what the government described as his "failure to punish" a senior subordinate allegedly involved in "violent and abusive conduct" (although that lesser official has not yet been dismissed or reprimanded).

The appointment of the new justice minister was widely welcomed, as Tovmasian is recognized as a prominent expert on constitutional law and has been outspoken in his calls for deeper reform and the need to strengthen the rule of law in Armenia.

Both Beglarian's dismissal and the cabinet reshuffle were undertaken with the unanimous approval of the HHK. It also seems quite likely that more cabinet-level officials (namely the ministers of agriculture and health, as well as the national police chief) may be replaced in coming months. Two senior police officials notorious for their brutality against opposition protesters have been dismissed and now face prosecution.

Signs Of A Political Opening

In a speech on December 18 during the celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of the HHK, Sarkisian warned that the current political situation could lead to "stagnation" without the desired "deepening of democracy" and "consistent introduction of European standards into all spheres of our state, public and economic life." Sarkisian called for the introduction of "European-style democracy and the rule of law" as a basic "requirement of society," adding that "European rules of the game" must prevail.

Sarkisian also formally pledged to "democratize Armenia's political system" and called for a "civilized dialogue" among all political parties and groups.

He affirmed his "respect" for those opposition forces (clearly meaning the HHD and Zharangutiun) that engage in "honest" criticism of the government. He said "their word carries a lot of weight in the elaboration of our programs." By contrast, Sarkisian harshly criticized Ter-Petrossian's HAK for its partisan and "unconstructive" approach.

Overall, the speech created the impression of a new political opening on the part of the authorities, an impression subsequently confirmed by the introduction of a gradual amnesty for 10 of the 12 opposition activists and supporters (whom some consider "political prisoners" in light of the politically related charges on which they were sentenced) detained during the March 2008 postelection crisis.

Taken together, Sarkisian's moves over the past three months suggest a new sense of political will to move beyond the political parameters of the March 2008 postelection crisis that have hindered him since his inauguration. It is also conceivable that Sarkisian -- who has the reputation of a successful gambler -- may call both Ter-Petrossian's and Tsarukian's bluff by announcing pre-term parliamentary elections in the coming year, in order to more fully consolidate his power and position prior to the 2013 presidential election and to further distance himself from his lingering lack of legitimacy stemming from the 2008 postelection crisis.

-- Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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