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Has Armenia's Main Opposition Bloc Overplayed Its Hand?

Armenian opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian at a Yerevan rally in early August
Armenian opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian at a Yerevan rally in early August
With parliamentary elections due in eight months, the Armenian political landscape is again in flux.

Popular dissatisfaction with the country's leadership, especially among younger, university-educated Armenians impatient for democratic change, is on the increase. They constitute the majority of the thousands of people who leave the country every year in search of jobs and a better life abroad. Yet, paradoxically, support for the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian appears to be dwindling.

At the same time, there are signs that the coalition government headed by President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) may be preparing to walk away from the dialogue with the HAK that it agreed to three months ago.

Those talks between five-person teams representing the three-party coalition government and the extra-parliamentary HAK began in mid-July following months of haggling over their format and agenda. The HAK insisted on formal negotiations that would focus on the holding of pre-term elections, demands that the authorities consistently rejected.

The dialogue ground to a halt in late August when the HAK negotiating team failed to show up for the seventh round of talks to protest what it said was the authorities' failure to make good on a pledge to release from pre-trial detention Tigran Arakelian, a HAK youth activist arrested earlier in August following a standoff with police in a Yerevan park. The coalition negotiating team insists they cannot and will not intervene in the working of the judiciary.

Sarkisian, who in a landmark address last December called for "civilized dialogue" between political parties and for expediting the transition to "Western-style democracy," did not even mention the stalled talks in three addresses he delivered on September 13 at separate receptions to mark the 20th anniversary of Armenia's independence. Instead, he excoriated unnamed political forces that choose "relentless struggle" and confrontation over constructive cooperation -- a clear allusion to the HAK.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Sarkisian also played up the potential role as a forum for discussion of controversial issues of the 36-person Public Council he established shortly after his election in 2008. The council has already demonstrated its ability to act as a conciliator. Its chairman, former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian (Ter-Petrossian's defeated challenger in the 1996 presidential ballot), told this writer in June that its members helped to draft the modalities and conditions for the amnesty earlier this year under which over 500 prisoners, including some jailed for their alleged role in the post-presidential election violence in Yerevan on March 1-2, 2008, were released. Sarkisian predicted on September 13 that the council "still has much work to do, and that it will contribute to the growth of accord and solidarity in our society."

Meanwhile, the HAK continues to send mixed messages. Its leaders have repeatedly extended the deadlines they set for the authorities to meet their progressively fine-tuned demands, which now focus on the calling of pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections. They have pledged time and again, most recently at a rally in Yerevan on September 9, to mobilize the population to force concessions from Sarkisian, but avoid spelling out what form that popular pressure might take, and what concrete measures they will resort to if Sarkisian remains obdurate. Ter-Petrossian rules out "revolution." At the HAK's most recent rally, he explicitly rejected "the insane idea of a life-or-death struggle [and] the irresponsible slogan 'fight to the death.'"

On current showing, the HAK's stated intention of forcing Sarkisian to agree by the end of this month to schedule pre-term elections is unrealistic. Only a few thousand people have shown up for its rallies this summer, in contrast to tens of thousands in the spring. It is not clear whether the decline in attendance is purely seasonal or whether it reflects popular disillusion at the HAK's failure to capitalize on the wave of hope and enthusiasm generated in February-March by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Aram Manukian (no relation to Vazgen), chairman of the Armenian National Movement that is aligned with the HAK, expressed his frustration on September 15 at widespread public apathy in the face of social injustice and corruption. Manukian acknowledged that the HAK has not yet succeeded in building up a "critical mass" of support sufficient to achieve its stated aims.

Pro-government politicians and independent observers alike have begun questioning the wisdom of the HAK's reliance on public rallies and maximalist rhetoric. Gagik Minasian, one of the governing coalition's representatives in the stalled talks, warned in late August that what he termed "the destructive path of upheavals" "leads nowhere" and only discredits the HAK. similarly quoted Yerevan-based analysts Richard Giragosian and Yervand Bozoyan as saying respectively that "the time for street rallies and public demonstrations has passed," and that "if [the HAK] does not change its tactics, it will lose more and more supporters."

Two other opposition parties that questioned the rationale for the HAK-government dialogue have switched tactics in the hope of capitalizing on popular discontent. They are the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, which has five mandates in the 131-member parliament, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which was a member of successive coalition governments until April 2009, when it left the coalition to protest Sarkisian's policy of rapprochement with Turkey.

Leading HHD member Armen Rustamian announced on September 3 that the HHD parliament faction will again seek to force a vote of no-confidence in the cabinet of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian. Its previous bid to do so, in May, failed. The HHD will also launch a series of demonstrations across the country with the aim of forcing the government to resign.

And Zharangutiun, which currently has five mandates in the 131-member parliament, has ended the boycott of parliamentary proceedings it declared in late February to protest a power-sharing agreement under which the coalition junior partners Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) and Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) undertook to support Sarkisian's bid for reelection in 2013. Faction secretary Larisa Alaverdian said on September 13 the five deputies decided to end the six-month boycott because Armenians are now convinced of the need for "systemic changes" and "complete regime change."

Whether that conviction will translate into increased attendance at rallies convened by the HAK and the HHD in the coming months, and how it will impact on next May's parliamentary ballot, is impossible to predict at this juncture.

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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