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Explaining Armenia: An insider's view

by Gevork Ter-Gabrielian


The President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian (LTP) resigned after his
power ministers expressed their disagreement with his policies,
several of his supporters quit, and the ruling coalition in the
parliament collapsed. The apparent point of disagreement was the fate
of Nagorno Karabakh, but there are several other causes which
reinforced the main rift among the power elites and made the populace
tacitly or overtly supportive of the 'soft' coup: rampant poverty,
corruption and fixed parliamentary (1995) and presidential (1996)
elections.

In trying to understand Armenian politics of these days it makes sense
to look at the political landscape from a perspective of leading
ideologies rather than political parties. Ideologies may be common for
different political forces, cutting across party affiliations and
loyalties. For a while now Armenia has been divided between two
opposing factions - nationalists and pacifists.

Nationalists

A part of nationalists are old patriots formed during the Brezhnev
era. A few days ago they participated in creating a National Council,
a broad coalition of intelligentsia (poets, artists, scientists,
academicians, about 500 people). This is a symbolic authority of
intelligentsia, designed either to supplement or to substitute the
existing National Council-the Parliament in these turbulent times. The
new Council was created with the overt approval of the Defense
Minister, Vazgen Sarkissian, the key figure in the soft coup in tandem
with Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, former President of the
non-recognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The old nationalist intelligentsia has complained a lot that they were
not sufficiently utilized by the ruling governments, always led by
Levon Ter-Petrossian (LTP) from the times when the USSR started to
collapse. Now it seems that the first signs of their cooperation with
the new power are promising. Their ideology is that national interests
go first. In addition, they support regulated market and strong
welfare state, but do not advocate abandoning or discarding market
economy and freedom of enterprise.

Because the socialist principles of government are not fashionable
today with those who provide Western money-the United States, Europe,
or the International Financial Organizations (IFI), this group is also
quite anti-Western and, correspondingly, pro-Russian. However, their
desire for Armenia to stay in the closest possible alliance with
Russia is pragmatic: as they say, this is a right thing to do because
Russia proved to be Armenia's best friend over time. And Russia is
powerful and scary. However, Armenia should stay with Russia only
insofar as that corresponds to Armenia's interests.

The old intelligentsia is representative, but has no real power except
for influencing the public opinion, and is not an action type force.
Real leaders behind the coup are those who have the real power, and
first of all military and security forces: Vazgen Sarkissian, Robert
Kocharian, and Serj Sarkissian, the Security Minister. They are young
and pragmatic. They are supported by the biggest, as of today, and
still growing coalition in the Parliament led by the Yerkrapahs
(land-defense forces). These incorporate many of those who have
directly participated in the war with Azerbaijan. This is how the
Vietnam war (or the Afghan war) syndrome worked out on the Armenian
soil.

The one uniting feature of these two groupings is that they could not
unite to fight corruption, or to advance democracy, or to rebuild the
economy. The only apparent ground for their possible reunion is the
Karabakh cause. The blood shed for Karabakh cannot turn out to be
futile. Of course, corruption and lack of democracy are factors that
count heavily, but the nationalists receive their moral strength from
their concern over Artsakh's (the Armenian name of Nagorno Karabakh)
destiny rather than any other source. They have so far failed to
formulate any miraculous program to address the endemic problems in
Armenia - corruption in conditions of a destroyed industry, and the
impossibility of real democracy because of this same condition. They
will probably use whatever is at hand and implement an ad hoc policy
(examples of which were evident in Robert Kocharian's several
months-long premiership), and base their actions on doing the opposite
of the apparent failures of the LTP administration. The first thing
they can do is to strengthen and expand relations with the Diaspora,
especially with the nationalist-socialist ARF-Dashnaktsutiun Party,
banned by LTP in Armenia. They can also be more PR oriented and
interactive with the population. They are going, alas, to be in cold
terms, probably, with the international organizations and major
democracies, whom they just proved that it is impossible to impose a
peace on a nation if that nation considers that peace unjust.

Note, however, that the Karabakh cause is symbolic - there was no clear
way to implement any compromise agreement, even if one were signed by
LTP. The Armenian identity of Nagorno Karabakh wasn't in greater danger
than in the earlier years. More likely, all the factors accumulated,
and finally, as the Armenian adage says, 'the soul is overfilled'.

Pacifists

The second ideal type presents those who are about to quit the scene
of postmodern Armenian politics: LTP himself and his main supporters
from the ANM.  Their ideologies concerning relations with Azerbaijan
and Turkey have been formulated by such figures as Ktrich Sardarian
and Ashot Bleyan-both defeatist pacifist. They never wanted to make
war for a national cause. As soon as the war occurred, they wanted to
stop it and abandon defense of Nagorno Karabakh. LTP is a graduate of
the Oriental Studies Department, where students were inculcated such
ideas as the one that the problems of Armenians historically originate
from the Armenians themselves. They were Western-oriented. Ideas that
history is over, nation-state is outdated, and one must look forward
to individual success rather than backward trying to redress national
and historical injustices were fashionable in that environment. To
become a kind of Turkophile after studying the Turks thoroughly and
professionally is a peculiarity of an Oriental Studies graduate (of
whom I myself am an example). Especially since they were in opposition
to the Russian studies graduates-naturally, Russophiles.

People with this mentality think that if they wouldn't like to fight,
it is wrong to fight, and peace in every case is better than war. This
is not a bad position, taken abstractly, but it is fruitless in the
case of Armenia. Readiness to unilateral concessions is costly for
one's national dignity. What was going to be gained as a result of
such a deal, except for abstract peace, remained unclear. LTP never
presented any rational calculus of pros versus cons of Armenia's
giving back the lands around Karabakh.

The second branch of this type is represented by Grzo (a new
multimillionaire, the richest man in Armenia, who just fled to Los
Angeles) and Telman Ter-Petrossian (brother of LTP, an industrialist
and businessman who strongly advocated developing trade relations with
Turkey and died in May 1997). They do not care about such categories
as national mission, history, or destiny. They want to do business and
get rich, and as a side-result of their personal success, to bring
pizzerias and other signs of 'haute couture', as they understand it,
to Armenia. They are apolitical as much as possible, except that they
needed strong political support from LTP et al. for their enterprises
to succeed, and mostly were relations of one or another among the
ruling political elite.

The basic problem of this type is that in order to achieve the kind of
life they want for themselves and the society, they have to convince
the populace to abandon some substantial elements of its identity, its
nationalist myths and aspirations. How to do that, they don't know. To
overflow the society with accessible consumer goods proved impossible,
given the circumstances of blockade, collapse, and war. Making people
starve is easier and more effective: starving people are softer and
manipulable. This, however, hardly would work for a long
time. Abandoning belief in state support, people increasingly take
their economic destinies in their hands individually. So, the time tested
laissez-faire psychology brings in necessity in identity from the back
door. This has happened with the Armenian Diaspora in the Western
countries, when they found themselves in a foreign but economically
prosperous environment. First, they just tried to make the ends
meet. Then they accumulated some capital and started looking for
cultural identity and trying to make sense of their national
destiny. At this point, the Armenian trouble starts: the identity in
question is in an overt contradiction with the global
'Atlantic-Turkic' alliance, where Turkey is seen as the main
instrument of promoting secular democracy in Azerbaijan and Central
Asia, and a strategic balance against Russia. These policies put
Armenia, historically hostile to Turkey, at odds with major political
trends in the Western world with which it would otherwise very
much like to be associated.

The populace

The populace, especially the one million that have left Armenia
running away from the economic collapse, have been put in a situation
that was favorable for the pacifists for a while. One becomes
apolitical when it is too cold at home and there is no food. You leave
the country and don't care anymore. Or you fall in a state of
intellectual and spiritual hibernation.

Those who have stayed in Armenia have gathered their last forces to
support a socialist agenda, which goes something like the following:
Rationing - but equality. Hard work - but accountability and
responsibility under the threat of criminal punishment for avoiding
public work and duties (like conscription). Necessarily harsh measures
against corruption. Equal conditions for all. The youth do not want to
go to the army and find themselves in a war against the Azeris. Even
more than that, however, they don't want to find themselves in that
situation and know that if they had money, they could have bribed the
recruiters and escaped the draft. All equal in poverty, like in the
early 1920s-1930s, during the time of sincere Armenian Bolsheviks, a
Miasnikian-Aghassi Khanjian ideal. Very few support the other
life-style: laissez-faire. Most of those who support that are
financially capable of leaving Armenia.

Note that the populace is in favor of getting rid of corrupt
government and Parliament; it is in favor of not abandoning Karabakh,
but nobody personally would like to carry the burden of a possible new
war. What they want is food, heating, and justice, but their leaders
repress this urge in the disguise of patriotism. The key problem is
that LTP honestly believed that defeatism - pacifism will bring in food
and heating but failed to demonstrate that convincingly, whereas the
opposing faction vaguely promises ascetic militantism as a key (or
substitute) to food and heating. LTP counted on those who didn't want
to go and die for Karabakh. The price LTP paid for his ideology was
corruption, the price the young Cossacks (as land-defense forces can
be interpreted) will pay will be individual freedom.

Who is coming?

For a long while LTP and his circle complained about the lack of
promising new constructive leadership candidates among the opposition
or the known youth. The words 'mard chka!' ('there isn't anybody!' [to
rely upon, to achieve results]) were invoked to explain all the
failures. Now let us see who is coming. The trio in government who
orchestrated the soft 'coup' are not newcomers in Armenian
politics. Their role of administrators rather than politicians has
just changed. Vazgen Sarkissian just confessed that he regretted
allowing the military to be used in support of the President after the
turmoil of Presidential elections in September 1996.

They have to develop an ideology. As always, Armenia is coming to a
drastic, though long-brewed, change in government without a clear
ideology, political program, or platform formulated by the known
leaders. Defense Vazgen has already privately confided that he
wouldn't run for the presidency (which is magnanimous, if he does not
change his mind, given his position as the chief of army). The other
two candidates are Security Serj and Premier Robert, both from
Karabakh rather than Armenia, both ineligible according to a strange
residency requirement of ten years from the new Constitution. Robert
is the real candidate, of course, but there is no time for a
referendum to change the Constitution: the new elections have to
happen in forty days. There is a way though: if Armenia and Nagorno
Karabakh declare a united state by a Parliament action, the residency
requirement for Kocharian (who is a Karabakh resident and, therefore,
de jure a citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan) will be
nullified. For those who did not catch it, this is a kind of joke, but
every joke is only partly a joke.

The traditional opposition will also furnish its cadres, necessarily
including candidates for new Presidency. These will be, most
obviously, Vazgen Manukian (the one who almost won over LTP last time;
he claimed that he won but LTP cheated) and an all-time dissident,
Paruir Hairikian. Perhaps most importantly, Vahan Hovhannissian, an
imprisoned leader of the banned ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, is bound to come
out of jail with a ready-made charisma of a long sufferer. He is
young, energetic (if he recovers from jail), can make a good
impression, but has no real experience in government or overt
politics. This is not an obstacle though. If elected, he will learn
fast. Power makes professionals from laymen.

The coming policies

Suppose that, in the most obvious way, everything goes as envisioned
by the leaders of the so far softest putsch in the Caucasus. According
to their promises (unofficial yet but soon to become official), the
situation should be kept from erupting in violence. There is not much
chance for violence though (unless Russia intermingles with supporting
one faction against another). The major power structures, army and
interior-security forces, are in an alliance with the main volunteer
group of yerkrapahs. Moreover, the trio in charge first subtly, then
overtly promised to try and follow all the tenets of the rule of
law. The Speaker of the National Council (Ararktsian, a leftover from
the LTP pack) resigned. According to the Constitution, the Premier
(Kocharian) now is the temporary caretaker of the Presidential
office. He remains the main person in charge for 40 days. This is an
awfully short time to prepare free and fair elections. However,
suppose that that happened, and the new president is in charge. The
next step is reshuffling of all the governmental structures, as well
as a fast move toward new Parliamentary elections-also earlier than
the scheduled ones. Perhaps eventually the institution of presidency
will be abandoned and Armenia will become a pure parliamentary
republic. Collegial form of government has been favored for a long
time by the major opposition parties (ARF and NDU), and may prove the
best solution for Kocharian to resolve the dilemma of either becoming
a President, or staying a Prime under the leadership of an unknown
entity. It can be claimed that, other factors being equal, those in
charge will try to avoid anything that can be interpreted as a witch
hunt. Nevertheless, arrest and prosecution of several mid-level
officials accused in corruption should be expected. Perhaps former
officials who run away, as well as major figures of former ruling ANM,
will be investigated too.

These are, however, the immediate steps. The overall programmatic
position of new forces is unclear still. To be sure, they do not have
one as of yet. History is in the making at the moment. They have yet
to establish a mechanism for communication and consultation among all
the representative political forces.  There is a chance that the
programs of Vazgen Manukian from National-Democratic Union (NDU),
Vahan Hovhannissian from ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, Robert Kocharian with his
experience as a governor of a militarized self-proclaimed statelet,
and the Russian military authorities of the local bases will
merge. Then Armenia will move toward a kind of military
democracy. Indeed, given the expected cold shoulder from the West, a
war-communism kind of policy appears unavoidable. Some say this is not
bad if the Diaspora would come to really help rather than plot or play
ambitions. That way, the Armenians could build up some self-sufficient
society. Not autarchic: economically strongly tied to Russia and, to a
lesser extent, to Iran and the West. But much less susceptible than
LTP was to pressure (or rumors of) such as from the IMF and WB ceasing
financial support unless a compromise over Karabakh is made on terms
proposed by the West.

This means revising the basics of LTP's foreign policy, and changing
from a request-style policies to distrust-style policies, similar to
Israel or Iran. Also, there won't be any guarantees for individual
rights and against everyday minor injustices. Strangely, elements of
freedom perhaps still exist in today's lax atmosphere of corrupt
mutuality of 'live and let live'. Such individual freedom, turned lack
of requirement of social responsibility, was why the top opposition
was unable to unite on any other agenda - even fixed elections -
except for Artsakh, whereas the hungry populace is unable to unite on
any other agenda except for back to socialist 'fairness'. 'Socialist'
in today's Armenia means a shortcut to social justice.

The expected main difference: consistency

There is a chance that such a state can succeed, because the prize
-Karabakh - will clearly be in front of everybody's eyes. The prize is
not abstract. It is not ideology, like communism. Socialism (Armenian
style), if it returns, is just a means to achieve a united
well-organized society while redrawing the internationally recognized
borders against the will of the world. Sounds desperate? On the other
hand, the one thing that the new government has every opportunity to
provide its citizens with is consistency in policies. The population
is extremely tired of unlimited flexibility of LTP (combined with
inability to be flexible enough to meet and talk with his own people
as frequently as necessary). Unable to overtly advance his pacifist
agenda most of the time, LTP had to maneuver and maneuver until he
outmaneuvered himself. Being against war with Azerbaijan but using the
Karabakh rhetoric to come to power. Negotiating peace with the Azeri
president while the Armenian forces attacked and occupied the major
city of Karabakh Shusha. Declaring his support to the efforts of the
OSCE Minsk group while the Karabakh forces established a security belt
(simply occupied some districts in Azerbaijan) around Nagorno
Karabakh. Declaring liberal democratic ideas while banning the main
opposition party. The list can be continued indefinitely.

If those who are coming to power can make a difference, it is exactly
in not repeating the mistakes of LTP. For instance, overtly declaring
that the Minsk group has to revise its position completely, or Armenia
does not need its mediation. Giving right to citizenship to the
Diasporans who would like to return. Being interactive and talking to
the people. Establishing a collegial rather than junta-like
government. Bringing fresh air back in the dusty corridors of
governmental buildings. Recruiting public servants based on their
abilities rather than connections and personal loyalty. There is a lot
to do even in the seemingly no-win situation Armenia finds itself
in. Despite LTP's claims that the issue was the choice between a war
and peace, consistency of one's position does not necessarily mean
militant stubbornness. The OSCE efforts are five years old, and if
they do not result in peace, it is only rational and courageous to
abandon them and look for another possible framework. There is no
reason to assume that the new rulers will be less pragmatic than LTP's
circle; but they have every opportunity to be more consistent, or to
work out mechanisms for achieving consistency in decision-making.

Finally, but not less importantly, this change in government had to
happen more than a year ago-during the presidential elections of
September 1996. In such a newly democratizing state as Armenia, a
periodic change in ruling elite is a necessary means to establish the
pattern; to make people used to the idea that rulers change, whereas
institutions and norms endure; to emancipate the rule of law from the
will of any particular official. This is another positive role the
soft coup, if it goes as planned, has a chance to play-to make up for
the lost opportunity of lawful change in September 1996, when LTP was
supported by Vazgen Sarkissian and Serj because the latter feared that
otherwise, chaos could result. Because Robert was in Karabakh
then, and because Vano Siradegian, LTP's main supporter and advisor,
was still the Interior Minister (a few days ago he finally resigned as
mayor of Yerevan).

Wider implications

Russia did not bring in any troops, especially since it has some in
Armenia anyway. But it is premature to claim that Russia was not
behind these events. A week ago Russia merged its Federal Security
Service with its Federal Borderguard Service, thus by a simple move
getting a chance to increase the presence of its intelligence forces
around its perimeter, as well as perhaps in the military bases in the
Caucasus. Even if Russia did nothing apparent to bring in such an
unexpected result as the resignation of LTP, the nothing it did was
already something: it seems that Yeltsin at the last moment abandoned
support of LTP, and this became another reason for LTP to resign.

Russia, indeed, gains from the situation in the most obvious way: the
turmoil in Armenia and expected cycles of elections are likely to
postpone the peace process long enough for the elections in Azerbaijan
to start. And then, nobody knows what can be expected. This means that
the main route for the Caspian petroleum will not be determined, or at
least implemented, for a long time to come yet. Toward that time, the
Russian route has every chances to institutionalize.

There is also another point in all these events: it has become
increasingly apparent that in the Caucasus a defeat in an ethnic or
international war, or a mere pacifist position, necessarily results in
a change in government. There was one coup in Georgia and two and a
half in Azerbaijan from the time of the collapse of the USSR. So far
Armenia was out of the coup game, but it seems not any more. This is
another lesson to those who are in charge today. Apparently, the
policies of unilateral concessions, or their mere proposal, do not
lead to peace, but rather to new coups. Let us hope they are soft and
peaceful. The understanding of this danger certainly works on
increasing recalcitrance in the respective positions of ethnic
contenders. However, there might be also some other conclusions
inferred from this paradox of the Caucasus.  Whereas it is assumed
that political peace is necessary for economic advance, in the
Caucasus we have a vicious cycle of all attempts of political peace to
result in abrupt change in government and, consequently, failure of
peace negotiations. Perhaps it would be wiser to go the other way
around. What if all peace talks are postponed insofar as all
cease-fires are preserved, until that time when economic reforms are
implemented, the petroleum flows, and some level of prosperity is
achieved? What if, rather than making the conflicts trump cards in
power games as well as in geo-economic games, we removed them as a
factor from the games altogether? To proceed as if there is no
necessity in a final peace treaty insofar as the cease-fire holds? To
conclude an agreement on permanent cease-fire instead of being stalled
in talks about the status of ethnic enclaves?


	Author's note: Thanks to Arthur Martirossian from Harvard
	for bringing the factors concerning Russia to my attention.


-------------------------------------------------------------------
Gevork Ter-Gabrielian is a political scientist from Armenia' Center
for Democratic  Political Studies. He has  researched in Germany on
conflict resolution in the Caucasus.

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