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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.