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POLITICS IN ARMENIA: A THORNY `REVOLUTION' IN THE MAKING? Armenian News Network / Groong April 5, 2004 By Asbed Kotchikian Over the past several weeks the Armenian political landscape has been filled with calls for power change. These calls made by the opposition might not have been taken seriously by many political analysts however the way the government and the ruling coalition has been reacting to it tells a different story. The super-charged political atmosphere is also marred by incidents of beatings and arrests of not only opposition party members but also independent human rights activists - an event which might be an indicator of the governments' nervousness and inability to deal with dissent. THE SOURCE OF DISCONTENT Since the contested presidential elections in March 2003 the opposition parties have been demanding the annulment of the elections and the resignation of President Robert Kocharian on the grounds that he rigged the elections and stole the presidency from the main opposition candidate Stepan Demirchian. With the parliamentary elections the following month, the opposition received another blow when they only managed to obtain 23 seats (out of 131) in the Parliament - again reported to be full of irregularities and violations - thus depriving them from a political platform to contest Kocharian. To lessen the tension, the Constitutional Court of Armenia proposed that a referendum be held within a year of the presidential elections to measure the level of support that the president and the government will have from the public. The suggested referendum was supposed to take place by April 16 of 2004 and as that date gets closer and the government does not show any signs of holding it - mostly because the constitutional court's proposal was merely a suggestion and the government is under no obligation to consider it - the opposition is using that issue as the main driving force for its demands for the resignation of Kocharian. On March 26 - the day that the opposition had earlier promised mass demonstrations to ouster Kocharian from office - the two main opposition parties, the Justice bloc led by Stepan Demirchian and the National Unity Party led by Artashes Geghamian, announced that they are planning to hold mass demonstrations and rallies to force the government out and reestablish `order' in the country. This announcement was promptly followed by a statement made by the ruling coalition comprised of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), Orinats Yerkir (OY, Country of Law) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) blaming the opposition for escalating tension in the country and attempting to change government through unconstitutional means. The ruling coalition parties also called for the law enforcement agencies (AKA Defense Minister Serge Sarkissian) to defend the order and the constitution by all possible means. Over the next several days the Communist Party of Armenia (CPA) also joined the opposition in their anti-government `crusade' and the country is embracing itself for mass rallies and demonstrations by mid-April to force President Kocharian out of office. Within this volatile political atmosphere there have been many incidents, which raised the possibility of violent conflict between the government and opposition. Thus on March 28 there was an anti-government rally in Gyumri organized by the opposition parties which resulted in the arrest of several of the organizers and participants of the rally by the local authorities. A day later the Armenian Parliament started discussing the passing of a bill titled `Order for Holding Meetings, Rallies and Marches' which if passed would give the law enforcement authorities the right to arrest the organizers of mass rallies and would limit the right to hold demonstrations. The bill passed the first reading and now is in the process of being examined by the constitutional court of Council of Europe to make sure it concurs with the standards set by the Council for protecting the rights of citizens. The opposition believes that this draft law is nothing more than a ploy to hinder attempts by them to hold anti-Kocharian rallies and demonstrations. In another move to curb the opposition, the prosecutor-general's office filed a criminal case against the leaders of the Justice Bloc on the grounds that they have called for regime change through violence and are plotting to remove President Kocharian from office. With some far-sightedness, President Kocharian had recently (in early March) replaced the prosecutor-general and appointed one of his most loyal officials to the post. This fact raises more questions about the preparedness and readiness of the government to `protect' itself not only through the state security apparatus but also by resorting to human rights violations - if needed - against the opposition. REBELS WITHOUT A CAUSE It is interesting to observe that the opposition parties demanding President Kocharian's resignation do not have a clear ideological difference - neither domestically nor in terms of foreign policy. The main point of contestation seems to be leadership rather than policy change. This becomes even more apparent if one examines the lack of unity among the opposition itself where there have been many instances when both Demirchian and Geghamian were unwilling to cooperate with each other because of their inability to have a joint leadership. Many observers of the events in Armenia make a comparison between what could happen in Armenia, with what happened in Georgia in the past several months. However both countries are fundamentally different and there are many factors rendering that analogy irrelevant. First of all, as mentioned above, the Armenian opposition does not have a unified leadership. Whereas in Georgia there was a troika willing to support each other all the way in their challenge to the central authorities, the Armenian opposition leaders are barely able to agree on holding mass rallies together. The second point is that the state apparatus in Armenia is much stronger than that of Georgia and the government would not hesitate to use the internal security forces - and if needed even the army as announced by Defense Minister Serge Sarkissian - to disperse the demonstrators and not allow them to `storm' the Parliament. Finally the former Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze had the political foresight and maturity enough to resign rather than risk a potential military confrontation with his own people, whereas the current Armenian administration - mostly because of the strong state apparatus that it controls - feels under no obligation to bow and hand over the government to the opposition. Considering the abovementioned differences between the two countries the chances that Armenia could have a `rose revolution' similar to that in Georgia are very slim. It would be even safe to say that the occurrence of any revolution by the masses in Armenia is far from being realizable. This could be because of two main factors. The first is the collective apathy existing in Armenia and the willingness of the people to vote with their feet by leaving the country rather than stay and try to make a change in the system. The second factor is the government's near monopoly of the media - which was not the case in Georgia where the operation of a free media was instrumental in the rallying of the masses and raising awareness about the existing political and social issues. What seems to be presented as a political standoff between the authorities and the `disenchanted,' could be nothing more than a personal vendetta between Kocharian and Demirchian. However unlike Demirchian, President Kocharian is able to show that he is distant and above the political squabble by not making extensive public appearances, and instead pushing for the ruling coalition and his Defense Minister to make statements against the opposition. The power politics in these events becomes more apparent when one looks at the statements made by the ruling coalition where they call the opposition to be careful of not disturbing the peace and social order. It should also be noted some of the partners in the ruling coalition have, in the not so distant past, been using rallies and demonstrations to demand the change of government in Armenia. Such indicators show that politics in Armenia is still far from having any ideological basis and that the main driving force for making coalitions - both pro or anti government - is to attain power rather than to address the social and economic problems of the country. PRESENT AND FUTURE RAMIFICATIONS The tense political situation in Armenia is expected to last until mid-April, when there could either be an escalation of the standoff between the government and the opposition or the ruling coalition - with the help of state security agencies - would be able to `restore' order in a relatively less bloody confrontation. The absence of dialogue between the government and opposition also makes the possibility of peaceful resolution of the tensions questionable. Several events in the past weeks do not instill hope in the way the government would handle the opposition in particular but also dissent in general. Thus the beating of Mikael Danielian - of the Armenian Office of Helsinki Association - and the government's inability or unwillingness to find or to prosecute the assailants, raises questions about the sorry state of human rights in the country. This beating coupled with the government crackdown on opposition supporters sends a message that the authorities are hesitant to give in to the demands of the opposition in the coming weeks and are ready to use any means possible (be it legal or otherwise) to stop any confrontation that they might face. In the standoff between the government and the opposition, the government seems to be overestimating the strength of the opposition and its ability to make a change. This overestimation could be the result of two assumptions. First the authorities are aware that their support is dwindling among the masses and are afraid the opposition would be able to rally support against them. The second factor might be relevant to the events in Georgia where the opposition led by Saakashvili was able to mobilize the disenchanted masses - something that the Armenian authorities might expect to happen not because of the ability of the Armenian opposition to rally people but because of the increasing disillusionment that the population has towards the authorities. Whatever the reasons beyond the government overreaction, it is safe to say that Armenia's political scorecard in the region is in decline. While several years ago the country was hailed to be the one with the least violations of democracy and human rights in the South Caucasus, it seems that currently Armenia is competing for third place with Azerbaijan. If the planned rallies and demonstrations within the next few weeks are dismissed by the government in a violent fashion, Armenia will undoubtedly have a hard time to present an image of a country in transition to the better and the country - already isolated regionally - would be considered more of a pariah state and lose possible economic investments from the international community. Finally an alarming phenomenon looms ahead on the Armenian domestic political scene and that is the usage of nationalist rhetoric and labeling the actions of the opposition as unpatriotic and endangering the national security. Such actions by the Armenian government might pave the way for lowering the glass ceiling on political debate, tolerance for criticism and political activity in general in the country. In the weeks ahead, Armenia will witness a confrontation between an ideologically void opposition and an insecure government. The absence of ideology in the opposition could make the leaders of the opposition demand nothing less than change of power and an insecure government could resort to any means possible to guarantee the continuity of its control. Even if the planned rallies are not held and the tension between the opposition and government is subdued, the rift between the ruling coalition on one hand and the opposition on the other is already irreconcilable, and shows the extent to which political life in Armenia immature, and where obtaining or retaining power and control is the order of the day, overshadowing the economic and social needs of its citizens. -- Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston University and a visiting fellow at Cambridge University. He spent two years (2000-02) in Armenia and Georgia conducting research and teaching at local universities. Comments to the author may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.