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Review & Outlook - 04/05/2004

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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 asbed@bu.edu.

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