For the third time in three years, the Armenian opposition has announced the start of a nationwide campaign to bring about regime change, or at least wrest significant political concessions from the country's leaders. Whether this attempt to bring about what one leading figure termed "a velvet revolution as a result of peaceful popular pressure" will succeed where the previous two failed is questionable, however.
At the height of the "Arab Spring" of 2011, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian convened a series of four protest demonstrations in Yerevan to demand pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections.
Ter-Petrossian never recognized the legality of the presidential ballot three years previously, in which, according to official returns, he polled just 21.51 of the vote compared to 53 percent for then Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
The 2011 protests mobilized up to 35,000 people. But, for reasons that were never clarified, Ter-Petrossian failed to capitalize on that manifestation of mass support: He advocated "caution" rather than "pushing the authorities into a corner." The talks the HAK subsequently embarked on with representatives of Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) ended in deadlock.
In the spring of 2014, a year after Sarkisian's re-election for a second term, four of the five minority parties represented in the parliament elected in May 2012 set aside their long-standing mutual distrust and jointly planned new demonstrations in support of their efforts to force a vote of no confidence in the government. That initiative collapsed when Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) stepped down unexpectedly.
Then, in June 2014, the four parties in question -- the HAK; the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, which had been part of the ruling coalition until the May 2012 parliamentary election; the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, Serzh Sarkisian's main challenger in the 2013 presidential ballot; and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) -- issued a list of 12 demands to the Armenian leadership, and set a deadline of September 30 for meeting them.
Most of the demands focused on the socioeconomic situation. They did not include President Sarkisian's resignation, which the BHK and HHD have stopped short of calling for. HHD parliament faction head Armen Rustamian explained that "Serzh Sarkisian's removal alone would not save the country" in the absence of radical changes to the political system.
Specifically, the opposition called for:
- The suspension of the pension reform that requires mandatory payments by all employed persons under the age of 40 into two state-controlled pension funds.
- The revision of legislation governing the use of roadside speed cameras
- A three-fold reduction of the trade turnover tax and the abolition of VAT payments at the border
- Doubling agricultural output
- The conversion of agricultural subsidies from foreign currency into Armenian drams
- A program to revive the country's flagship Nairit chemical plant, and the payment of wage arrears to its work force
- A ban on the sale or privatization of hydroelectric power stations on the Vorotan river
- A ban on raising public transport tariffs
- The adoption of legislation banning economic monopolies
- Amending the electoral code to ensure that the next parliamentary election (due in May 2017) is held exclusively on the basis of party lists. (At present 41 of the 131 deputies are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 90 under the proportional system.)
- Granting the opposition oversight functions (over which officials or government bodies is not specified.)
- A ban on the signing of any document that could pose a threat to the continued existence of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
HHK parliamentary faction head Vahram Baghdasarian initially responded by hinting that the Armenian leadership took the "rational" demands seriously and would discuss those they considered "acceptable," but the authorities ultimately failed to meet any of them.
It was that failure that served as the catalyst for the planned new wave of demonstrations.
Lack Of Unity
How effective the new push for regime change will be is not clear. As indicated above, there are fundamental differences among the four parties.
The BHK and the HHD do not support the insistence by the HAK and Zharangutiun that Sarkisian and the government of Hovik Abrahamian should resign.
Moreover, the HAK, the BHK and Zharangutiun oppose planned constitutional amendments floated by Sarkisian that would transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister, while the Dashnaks support them.
And Zharangutiun is the only one of the four parties that unequivocally opposes Sarkisian's unilateral decision one year ago to commit Armenia to membership of Russian President Vladimir Putin's planned Eurasian Economic Union.
Possibly in light of that lack of opposition consensus, both Sarkisian and senior HHK representatives have shrugged off the opposition's warning that they face a "hot autumn."
In a clear allusion to BHK Chairman Tsarukian, HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov dismissed the opposition alignment as "a merger of revanchism and oligarchy."
Commentators too are generally sceptical. Veteran political scientist Aleksandr Iskandarian, for example, was quoted as opining that, despite their growing cooperation, the four parties lack "the potential" to bring down the government. "And everybody realizes that," Iskandarian said. "Not just you and me, but also the authorities and the leaders of the [opposition] quartet."
Possibly reflecting a lack of public confidence in the quartet's potential, just 2,000 people turned out on September 25 for the first of its new series of rallies.
That figure would, however, most likely have been higher had the meeting been held in Yerevan's Freedom Square, rather than in the town of Abovian 15 kilometers north of the capital.
Further rallies are planned in Gyumri, Vanadzor, and six other towns, culminating in a protest demonstration in Yerevan on October 10 at which the decision will be taken whether and how to intensify pressure on the country's leadership.
-- Liz Fuller