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Where now for Armenia’s opposition?

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Public protests are mounting in Armenia over economic and political issues. But where is the Armenian opposition in all this?


David Petrosyan
18 November 2014

Yerevan's Freedom Square filled with protests and marches twice last month. On 10 and 24 October, demonstrations showing increasing numbers in support, were organised by the three opposition parties: Prosperous Armenia (PA), Armenian National Congress (ANC), and Heritage.

For informed observers, this outburst of protest activity was far from unexpected. Over the past seven years, Armenia has found itself in a conflicted political situation. In part, this crisis stems from the aftermath of the 2008 presidential elections when ex-President Lev Ter-Petrosyan (ANC) organised street protests in Yerevan. These protests came to a head when the police tried to disperse the crowd on 1 March 2008; and 10 people died in the violence which followed. Despite demands made by international organisations and Armenia’s parliamentary opposition, these events have yet to be investigated in full.

Protesters call for elections in central Yerevan, 1 March 2014. (c) Maxim Edwards

Protesters call for elections in central Yerevan, 1 March 2014. (c) Maxim Edwards

In 2011, after nearly four years of opposition, Ter-Petrosyan and the ANC changed tack. After realising that the ANC could not force the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan (Republican Party of Armenia), Ter-Petrosyan stopped seeking popular support from outside and decided instead to focus on the internal splits within the 'party of power.' This made sense; in the wake of March 2008, Sargsyan had enjoyed significant simultaneous support from Moscow, Brussels and Washington. He made a public gesture of gratitude to President Vladimir Putin for his support during the post-election events in 2008; and US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Freid stated publicly during a visit to Yerevan that Armenia 'needs a President like Serzh Sargsyan.'

Ex-President Ter-Petrosyan stopped seeking popular support from outside and decided instead to focus on the internal splits within the 'party of power.'

Divisive tactics

Ex-President Ter-Petrosyan thus concentrated on the divisions between Gagik Tsarukyan (leader of Prosperous Armenia) and Sargsyan's ruling Republican Party. While these two groups are linked — the prime minister's son is married to Tsarukyan’s daughter, they are largely divided by money. Together with Prosperous Armenia, Tsarukyan — one of Armenia's richest men — represents the business community, which remains relatively independent of the authorities. So while Prosperous Armenia is a popular alternative for Armenia's middle class, Sargsyan's Republican Party represents the ruling elite and advances the interests of the oligarchs.

At a supporters' meeting in November 2011, Ter-Petrosyan gave a speech entitled 'Political analysis,' in which he drew attention to Prosperous Armenia’s resources and self-sufficiency. Ahead of the approaching parliamentary elections, Ter-Petrosyan invited Tsarukyan to run independently of the ruling coalition. Tsarukyan took this advice and, as a result, headed up the second-largest parliamentary faction (35 seats out of a possible 131). Prosperous Armenia subsequently ignored the government’s offer to join a coalition government, and party members later resigned their official government posts.

Supposedly working together

Since autumn of 2013, Prosperous Armenia, Armenian National Congress, Heritage and ARF-Dashnaktsutiun have begun to work together on economic, political and social reforms. More than a third of opposition parliamentary deputies have started to apply consistent pressure on the government — a first in the history of the Armenian parliament. This pressure eventually led to the resignation of Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan's government in April 2014. The Republican Party's last political partner, Rule of Law, has also left the ruling coalition. As a result, there are now 70 deputies (of a possible 131) who support the government of current Prime Minister Ovik Abrahamyan.

In any European country, this majority would be considered relatively stable, presenting few problems before the end of the government’s legislative term. However, the realities of Armenian life make for a more complicated situation.

For one, the multi-party system suffers from ideological and structural instability. Taking the Republican Party's parliamentary group as an example, 15 of its deputies are not officially members of the Republican Party.

Official figures suggest that more than 32% of the population are living in poverty

At the same time, social tensions are running high. Even official figures suggest that more than 32% of the population are living in poverty, which is substantially higher than neighbouring Azerbaijan and Georgia. Likewise, corruption runs deep, and the shadow economy accounts for a significant proportion of economic transactions. Finally, President Sargsyan’s external support has begun to slip in the past year. Brussels, Moscow and Washington have become more sceptical in the wake of September 2013, when, following a meeting in Moscow, Sargsyan abruptly decided to enter the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), after nearly four years of negotiations on the European Union’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA).

Opposition efforts

Opposition protests have become more vocal since the beginning of the summer. On 10 June, four parliamentary groups presented a 12-point list of demands to the government. These demands focused on Armenia’s socio-economic problems, and proposed a partial change to government policy in order to alleviate the plight of small and medium-sized businesses. These demands required neither loans, nor grants from international organisations, merely the goodwill of the government and President Sargsyan. The deadline for these demands was 30 September. The four parties threatened to call their supporters out onto the streets of Yerevan and elsewhere if their demands were not met.

Perhaps surprising, given the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the opposition's list of demands proposed no change to Armenia’s foreign policy, such as rejecting the EEU in favour of the DCFTA. Armenia’s DCFTA negotiations have garnered little reaction, having been poorly covered in the domestic media. Indeed, Brussels was not concerned with public backing for DCFTA, and counted on one man from the very start — President Sargsyan. The EU relied on support from within the bureaucracy and the Republican Party’s government officials, as well as 'civil society' (better known as 'grant-eaters' locally). As a result, protests against Armenia’s membership of the EEU rarely attract more than 50 participants.

The EU supports the current authorities on the basis of ‘political considerations’ rather than democracy.

This generally lacklustre reaction to DCFTA stems, of course, from Brussels' continuing recognition of falsified elections. The EU supports the current authorities on the basis of 'political considerations' rather than democracy. Thus, as far as Armenian society is concerned, Western policy differs little from Russian. But, as a military and political ally of Armenia, Russia garners support as a guarantor of the country’s security. Given the continuing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and difficult relations with Turkey, national security remains high on the Armenian political agenda.

Given the opposition’s divisions on foreign policy, its decision not to demand a change in foreign policy — switching the EEU for DCFTA, for example — was to be expected. While Prosperous Armenia and Armenian National Congress favour closer economic ties with Russia and other CIS countries as part of the EEU, Heritage, led by ex-Foreign Minister Raffii Ovannissyan, is the only opposition party against membership of the EEU. A liberal party with traditional leanings, Heritage is often called a 'pro-Western' platform by Western diplomats, who usually classify Prosperous Armenia (alongside ANC) as a pro-Russia party. That said, it may be more accurate to categorise ANC and PA as 'Armenia-centric' parties.

Internal political factors are the driving force when it comes to the opposition movement

Given these geopolitical considerations, ex-President Ter-Petrosyan stated that, should the opposition come to power, they plan to establish a democratic government within the framework of the EEU and yet continue to uphold European values. In this sense, internal political factors are the driving force when it comes to the opposition movement, more than external geopolitical considerations. This explains the opposition’s frequent statements to the effect that it does not intend to create a 'Maidan' in Yerevan.

Protests

As expected, the government did not fulfil any of the opposition’s aforementioned 12 demands. As a result, the government got what was promised: thousands of people demonstrating and marching on the streets.

These protests, organised by Prosperous Armenia, Armenian National Congress and Heritage, have made two further demands. First, that President Sargsyan should cancel the upcoming 'constitutional reform.' This reform would transform the Armenian political system, changing a presidential republic into a parliamentary one. Again, somewhat surprisingly, the opposition believes that this 'constitutional reform' will lead to a situation where President Sargsian will remain the leader of the country for life. To a Western observer, this assertion may seem strange, especially given Sargsyan’s declarations to the contrary: Sargsyan, he says, is not going to be the Prime Minister, nor the President. In reality, though, the situation is much simpler. Sargsyan will become Speaker of Parliament, elected by parliament’s ruling majority, and will work behind the scenes as the head of the ruling Republican Party, Prime Minister and President. This forecast situation can be explained by the current realities of political life in Armenia, whereby falsified elections give a parliamentary majority to the Republican Party.

In its current state, the political system allows for easy manipulation of the electoral process.

Second, the opposition have asked for emergency parliamentary and presidential elections in order to elect a legitimate executive body. While the next national elections are due to take place in 2017–2018, the opposition believes that the challenges facing Armenia and its people require a government whose legitimacy is beyond doubt. Moreover, the opposition believes the electoral system should be reformed. In its current state, the political system allows for easy manipulation of the electoral process.

September, however, saw the Dashnaktsutiun party leave the opposition movement on the eve of the protests. Dashnaktsutiun supports Sargsyan’s plans for 'constitutional reform.' Although Dashnaktsutiun did not enter the governing coalition, it is about to start negotiating on reforms with the current government.

Given the course taken by previous protest movements, the pressure on the 'party of power' is only going to increase. The demonstrations and marches are well organised and it is entirely possible that the appeal of the protests will expand further. Veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Armenia-Azerbaijan war have already come out in support of the opposition’s demands. Represented by several organisations, veterans make up six to seven thousand potential protestors. Moreover, all mass events organised by the opposition take place in strict accordance with the law and are yet to result in violence. While it is too early to make any serious predictions, a few results are already in. Following the opposition's first meeting in Yerevan, President Sargsyan has decided to delay discussion of constitutional reforms until February – March 2015.

While the opposition protest movement has a clear strategy (change of government via emergency elections), it is yet to reveal its tactics. Clearly, though, the backbone of this protest movement is the political alliance between Prosperous Armenia and Armenian National Congress (more accurately, the alliance between Tsarukyan and Ter-Petrosyan). Heritage does not have the resources of Prosperous Armenia or ANC. But while Tsarukyan is certainly more powerful, Ter-Petrosyan and ANC are an experienced political force. For those who want fundamental reform, the alliance of these figures may have a significant impact.

To use boxing terminology, the Armenian opposition is, at present, a light-heavyweight squaring up to a heavyweight. And while this fight would seem to be lopsided, the journeyman has some chances – that heavyweight status may well be illusory.

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