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'Dialogue' In Armenia: Politics Or Theater?

Armenian opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian addresses supporters at a rally in Yerevan in April.
Since the ouster early this year of the authoritarian leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian has convened repeated rallies in Yerevan in a bid to force the country's leadership to schedule preterm elections or risk the same fate.

The ruling coalition finally made public on July 9 the composition of a working group to embark on talks with the HAK. It remains unclear, however, whether the HAK will agree to either the format or the agenda proposed by the authorities.

The HAK is a loose coalition of some two dozen political parties and organizations, none of which is represented in parliament. Its primary objective is formal negotiations to set the timetable for early parliamentary and presidential elections which it believes it could win in a free and fair ballot. (Parliamentary elections are due in May 2012, and the next presidential ballot in February 2013.)

Ter-Petrossian continues to affirm that he was the rightful winner of the February 2008 presidential election, in which according to official returns he placed second with 21.5 percent of the vote, compared with 52.8 percent for then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.

The ruling three-party coalition headed by President Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) rules out early elections while affirming its readiness for dialogue on the various political and economic problems the country faces. Those a priori conditions raise the question whether either side is genuinely interested in a constructive exchange of views, rather than in political posturing aimed at highlighting the other side's perceived vulnerability and intransigence.

Dwindling Protest Attendances

Or have they, as other opposition parties have suggested, reached a tacit agreement under which President Sarkisian will schedule early parliamentary elections before the end of 2011 and guarantee the HAK a specific number of parliament mandates, in return for the HAK dropping its demand for an early presidential ballot?

Since mid-February, the apogee of the so-called "Arab Spring," the HAK has convened seven rallies in Yerevan (on February 18, March 1, March 17, April 8, April 28, May 31, and June 30). Attendance at those rallies has varied considerably. The largest turnout, some 35,000, was on March 1, the anniversary of the postpresidential election violence in 2008 in which10 people died. Since April, however, attendance has steadily dwindled, and on June 30 it was no more than a few thousand.

Initially, Ter-Petrossian warned that the HAK would launch a popular drive for regime change unless the Armenian leadership agreed to talks on early elections.

"Unless the Armenian authorities draw the correct conclusions [from the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders], the same thing will happen in Armenia sooner or later, and the full responsibility for that will devolve upon Serzh Sarkisian and the kleptocratic regime he heads...The only way to avoid undesirable developments is preterm parliamentary and presidential elections," Ter-Petrossian told supporters on February 18.

Two weeks later, on March 1, Ter-Petrossian issued what he termed a "last warning" to the authorities, listing 13 preconditions for talks, including the dismissal of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) and several other top officials.

But as of mid-March, Ter-Petrossian abandoned his tactic of ultimatums and confrontation and adopted a more moderate tone, and on April 8, he extended for a further three weeks his deadline for the authorities to meet his demands.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has made some "remarkable" concessions to the opposition.

Responding on March 17 to impatient supporters calling for immediate action to oust the present leadership, Ter-Petrossian stressed the need to proceed with caution. "We are not maximalists and for now we have no intention of pushing the authorities into a corner," he said.

He added that the HAK would agree to negotiations with the authorities if they agreed to just three of the 13 demands he had outlined two weeks earlier: the release of all "political prisoners," meaning his supporters jailed in the wake of the March 2008 postelection clashes; a new inquiry into that violence; and the lifting of the ban on holding HAK rallies in Yerevan's Freedom Square. That seeming inconsistency raised the question whether and why he feared a head-on confrontation with the authorities.

Negotiating Team

The Armenian authorities met the HAK's three core demands by late May, a concession that Ter-Petrossian described on May 31 as a "remarkable" and "unprecedented" "victory," and as heralding the emergence of "a new political situation...which allows us to solve even the most pressing issues by legal means."

Within days, the HAK named a five-man delegation to engage in talks with the authorities. Its members include Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrossian's erstwhile presidential spokesman; former National Security Minister David Shahnazarian; and Vahagn Khachatrian, who served under Ter-Petrossian as Yerevan mayor.

Ter-Petrossian expressed confidence that the authorities would likewise name a negotiating team. He also said while the main issue on the agenda would be early elections, "that does not mean we should not take cognizance of the agenda proposed by the authorities."

But the HHK made it clear that while it was ready to embark on talks with the HAK, expectations that it would name a formal negotiating team for those talks were "ridiculous." Both HHK Deputy Chairman Galust Sahakian and spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov explained that the HAK should simply submit its proposals concerning socioeconomic, political, geopolitical or other issues to the relevant state structure.

President Sarkisian's chief of staff, Karen Karapetian, for his part dismissed as "unacceptable" the elevation by the HAK to "ends in themselves" of both the format for the talks and the demand for early elections.

In a written statement on June 17, Sarkisian too said ultimatums and efforts to "turn a dialogue into negotiations" are "unacceptable." At the same time, Sarkisian affirmed that the parliament speaker, the prime minister, and other senior officials were open to dialogue with the HAK on specific issues within their competence.

Dialogue vs. Negotiations

The dispute is partly semantic and partly political. Khachatrian explained to this writer over coffee in Yerevan on June 20 that the authorities objected to the term "negotiations" (բանակցություններ, banaktzutiunner) because it implied an exchange between equals and thus bestowed legitimacy on the HAK. For that reason, he continued, the authorities insisted on the term "dialogue" (երկխոսություն, erkkhosutiun).

Ter-Petrossian himself generally uses the term "dialogue," while Zurabian always says "negotiations." On July 11, Heghine Bisharian, head of the Orinats Yerkir parliament faction and one of that party's two proposed participants in the talks, came up with the compromise variant "consultations" (խորհրդակցություններ, khorhrdaktzutiunner).

At the most recent HAK rally on June 30, Ter-Petrossian, whose sensitivity to and exploitation of lexical nuance is legendary, sought to downplay the difference between "dialogue" and "negotiations," arguing that the two terms are "almost synonyms." He predicted that "no matter how much the authorities persist...they will ultimately talk to us at the level of a delegation."

Meanwhile, speculation continues about what impelled the authorities to meet some (but not all) the HAK's demands, and how seriously the HAK threats to mobilize the population in an Arab-style uprising should be taken. President Sarkisian first stressed the imperative need to push ahead with genuine liberalization in a landmark speech last December, well before the onset of the "Arab Spring," and he has since won plaudits from the international community for finally releasing the last of the Ter-Petrossian supporters jailed in 2008.

Moreover, the timing of those concessions has served to undercut popular support for the HAK. On no occasion has the Armenian leadership shown any sign of caving in to pressure, let alone of panic.

A Clandestine Agreement?

Similarly difficult to assess are the mixed signals emanating from the HAK. On June 30, Ter-Petrossian postponed yet again, for a further two months, the deadline for the authorities to schedule preterm elections.

At the same time, he warned that after that date, "only one issue will remain on our agenda: not preterm elections, but the unconditional resignation of Serzh Sarkisian and the ruling coalition." His senior aide Zurabian subsequently said that failure by the authorities to meet the HAK's demand for preterm elections would result in "mass pressure on the government," including nonstop rallies and blocking major highways.

Opposition parties and independent newspapers are increasingly inclined to attribute the HAK's pussyfooting to the existence of a clandestine agreement between the HAK and the authorities over the holding and outcome of a preterm parliamentary election.

In mid-April, Ruben Hakobian, deputy chairman of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, one of just two opposition parties represented in parliament, told a press conference that "there is a certain agreement between the HAK and the authorities on the holding of preterm elections to the National Assemby.... It would be very advantageous for the HAK to take part in fresh elections at this juncture."

Two months later, Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun questioned the HAK's commitment to bringing about early elections, noting that Ter-Petrossian agreed to dialogue with the authorities even though the country's leadership has categorically ruled out new polls.

The independent daily "Yerkir" on July 1 construed Ter-Petrossian's extension of the HAK ultimatum to the authorities as merely the latest move in "a joint game."
Which interpretation is correct may become clearer if and when the dialogue/negotiations actually get under way.

-- Liz Fuller

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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