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Is Levon Ter-Petrossian A Spent Force?

Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian
Two months ago, former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian launched a new series of Egypt- and Tunisia-inspired protest demonstrations that he predicted would "very soon" topple the current leadership.

The tactics he has espoused, however -- extending repeatedly his ultimatums to the Armenian leadership, then telling rally participants to go home -- are at odds with his stated aim of forcing early elections. Consequently, the momentum Ter-Petrossian hoped to sustain may already have peaked, opening the way for the emergence of a second opposition alliance to rival his Armenian National Congress (HAK).

Meanwhile, the Armenian authorities have responded to Ter-Petrossian's threat of "Mubarakization" with unprecedented calm and prudence and a series of minor concessions clearly intended to undercut the 15-point ultimatum that Ter-Petrossian unveiled on March 1.

So far this year, the HAK has convened four protests: on February 18, March 1, March 17, and April 8. The March 1 protest in Yerevan was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the brutal crackdown on Ter-Petrossian supporters protesting his defeat -- according to official returns -- in the presidential ballot of February 19, 2008. Ten people died as a result of that violence. Between 30,000-35,000 people turned out for the March 1 rally, the largest in recent years, and treble the 10,000+ present on February 18.

How many showed up on March 1 because they support Ter-Petrossian's calls for regime change, and how many to pay their respects to those killed three years earlier is impossible to estimate. But buoyed by the huge crowd, Ter-Petrossian issued what he described as a "final warning" to the government. He set a deadline of March 15 for the authorities to meet the majority of the HAK's demands (including the release of all jailed oppositionists) and embark on negotiations over the scheduling of early parliamentary and presidential elections.

That the rally on March 1 served to galvanize and inspire many hitherto angry and disaffected but politically passive Armenians is clear both from the equally impressive turnout on March 17 and the popular mood of exultation. Eurasianet quoted Aram Manukian, a prominent HAK supporter, as exclaiming "We are making Armenian history at this moment!" and a middle-aged woman as saying, "I shall never forget this moment: we will win!"

The upbeat mood was enhanced by a key concession by Yerevan police, who after talks with Ter-Petrossian's aide Levon Zurabian agreed to let the demonstrators congregate on Freedom Square for the first time in three years. It was in Freedom Square that Ter-Petrossian made his political debut in February 1988 as leader of the informal Karabakh Committee formed to coordinate mass demonstrations to demand the transfer of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast from Azerbaijani to Armenian jurisdiction, and there that he gathered with his supporters in the aftermath of the ill-fated 2008 presidential ballot.

For whatever reason, however, Ter-Petrossian failed to capitalize on the euphoric mood on March 17. Responding 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 15 demands he had outlined two weeks earlier: the release of all "political prisoners," meaning his supporters jailed in the wake of the March 2008 clashes; a new inquiry into that violence; guaranteed opposition access to Freedom Square.

Ter-Petrossisan's aide Levon Zurabian reaffirmed on March 23 that "the goal of the congress is to enhance popular pressure to such an extent that it will enable us to force [President] Serzh Sarkisian's resignation."

Ter-Petrossian said that while "we are not inclined to talk to the authorities in the language of ultimatums," "the people's patience has limits," and so "April 28 must be either the day on which dialogue begins or the day of the final watershed between the authorities and the public." At the same time, he threatened to "drastically change" his hitherto cautious approach of political struggle if the authorities fail to meet these demands by that date. Zurabian for his part told the crowd to gear up for a "campaign of civil disobedience."

To be fair, Ter-Petrossian is engaged in a delicate balancing act, seeking to capitalize on the huge turnout on March 1 and March 17 while avoiding a repetition of any clashes with police that could turn violent and result in new fatalities.

But if the HAK rallies continue, a moment will inevitably arise at which Ter-Petrossian will have to either appeal to his supporters to stay on Freedom Square until the regime caves in to pressure, and thereby risk police retaliation, or send them home disenchanted and forfeit the chance of achieving his stated objective. The HAK apparently does not have a clearly defined strategy, but intends to react ad hoc depending on how the situation develops, and how many people show up on any given occasion.

Zurabian predicted last week that Sarkisian would flee the country if 200,000 people showed up for the April 8 rally. In the event, attendance was no greater, and possibly less, than on March 17. On April 13, he told a press conference that the HAK has not yet decided what it will do if the authorities fail to meet its demands. "We need to see what the people are prepared for, what they want, what [other] political forces are prepared for," he said.

Ter-Petrossian's soft-pedaling not only plays into the hands of the authorities, who routinely laugh off HAK predictions of major upheaval. Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), commented to RFE/RL just hours before the April 8 rally that "if we believed [the HAK predictions], there would already have been a hundred fresh elections and the presidential palace would have been seized 50 times."

Ter-Petrossian's stated preference for gradual and incremental pressure on the government appears to have already disheartened many of his supporters and disillusioned other opposition figures. "Hraparak" commented on March 18 that the HAK should not have told the crowd to go home after the previous evening's rally, and speculated that Ter-Petrossian and his team may be "afraid of the burden of taking power."

In addition, the opposition Zharangutiun party has publicly construed Ter-Petrossian's tactics as evidence that the HAK has cut a secret deal with the authorities under which President Sarkisian will call snap elections at some point this year in return for the shelving by the HAK of its calls for an early presidential vote (due only in February 2013). Zharangutiun Deputy Chairman Ruben Hakobian told a press conference on April 11 that "there is a certain agreement between the HAK and the authorities on the holding of pre-term elections to the National Assembly.... It would be very beneficial for the HAK to take part in fresh elections at this juncture."

"This once again demonstrates that we are dealing with a political force that has completely renounced principles and is trying to show through some manipulations that the authorities could make some concessions under its pressure," Hakobian said.

Zurabian categorically denied those allegations on April 13.

Relations between Zharangutiun and the HAK have deteriorated badly over the past month, since Ter-Petrossian's failure at the March 17 rally to acknowledge the presence on Freedom Square of Zharangutiun leader Raffi Hovannisian (Ter-Petrossian's first postindependence foreign minister) who had begin a hunger strike there several days earlier to demand early elections. Neither Ter-Petrossian nor other speakers mentioned Hovannisian's presence, let alone invited him to address the rally.

Hovannisian responded to the HAK leadership's perceived deliberate snub by accusing them of retreating from their original demands for early elections. "There has been a softening of, a departure from [the HAK's] demands, and this could be attributed to direct or indirect communication and perhaps a change in tactics," Hovannisian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on March 21. "They previously spoke of fresh elections after the resignation of the current president, lectured others on that score, whereas that that resignation [demand] is now gone." He implied that Ter-Petrossian may be in secret contact with the Armenian leadership.

Davit Shahnazarian, a longtime Ter-Petrossian ally, last week rejected such speculation, warning Zharangutiun "not to burn the last bridges" linking it with the HAK.

Some commentators have suggested that the HAK's popularity has peaked. The daily "Zhamanak" on March 22 predicted the emergence of a second, more vibrant opposition alignment that brings together Hovannisian's Zharangutiun, the People's Party headed by businessman Tigran Karapetian, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD).

Karapetian managed to mobilize several hundred people for a series of rallies in recent months after the authorities stripped his independent ALM TV station of its broadcasting license. He sees his party as "the new opposition," and has announced his intention of running for president in 2013.

The HHD, however, is biding its time. Vahan Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi), one of its leading members, told journalists on March 11 he is skeptical about Ter-Petrossian's repeated predictions that revolution is imminent. "A revolutionary situation presupposes a revolutionary change in mentality, attitudes. Unfortunately, I don't see that yet," said Hovannisian. "The explosive situation could lead to a coup and upheaval. But as a result of that upheaval, a revolution will not necessarily take place," he added.

Two weeks earlier, Hovannisian had told "Hayots Ashkhar" that cooperation between Armenia's leading opposition forces is "both possible and necessary," but that the rallying point should not be one individual, but an idea -- such as the need to ensure elections are free and fair. He implied that Ter-Petrossian and the HAK may obstruct such unity.

Meanwhile, the bickering between the three parties aligned in the coalition government continues despite the formal pledge they signed two months ago 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. On April 8, Vartan Bostanjian, a member of the parliamentary faction of the junior Prosperous Armenia (BH) party, said BH will not compete in that ballot as part of a single list. He said doing so would be "totally illogical."

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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