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Review & Outlook - 05/13/2004

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DIGGING DEEP IN TRENCHES: THE OPPOSITION IN ARMENIA FACES STALEMATE

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 13, 2004


After weeks of promises to force President Robert Kocharian out of
office, the opposition parties in Armenia started a series of protests
and demonstration first in various cities of Armenia and then in the
capital itself. Although the opposition parties managed to have a
united stand, the protests have yet to achieve their goals. The ruling
coalition, on the other hand, condemned the attempts of the opposition
party to "destabilize" the country and supported the regime's actions
to disperse the protesters and bring the country back to order.

During the demonstrations, several incidents have raised questions
about Armenia's capabilities and commitments to develop a relatively
stable and democratic country. The country's track record - which
until a year ago was, relatively speaking, one of the better ones in
the region - was tainted first by the presidential, then parliamentary
elections in 2003, and subsequently received a blow with the latest
harsh treatments of the demonstrators and the media representatives in
the hands of the security forces.


AN OPPOSITION WITHOUT RAISON D'JTRE

The current campaign by the opposition to depose President Kocharian
could be attributed to several factors. First of all, the successful
"rose revolution" in Georgia and the euphoria it created spilled over
to Armenia and gave the opposition an impetus to make similar changes
in Armenia in the hope that the international governmental and
non-governmental organizations which supported the Georgian opposition
would do the same in Armenia. However, the only similarity between the
events in Georgia and those in Armenia is the fact that the
demonstrations in both countries were a result of elections full of
fraud and irregularities. The difference between the two events is
that, whereas the opposition in Georgia had a strong unifying ideology
(to fight against rampant corruption and nepotism), the opposition in
Armenia is mostly based on discontent with Kocharian. In this respect,
the Georgian revolution could not offer a point of reference or be an
adequate comparison; instead, the current events could be compared
with what happened 8 years ago when former President Levon
Ter-Petrossian, who also faced a questionable election, had to use the
state security apparatus to reestablish order in the country.

The second factor for the "revilatization" of the opposition was the
fact that the campaign coincided with the first anniversary of
Kocharian's election as president for a second term. Also after the
elections, the Constitutional Court had decided to hold a referendum a
year after the elections to evaluate the President's first year in
office. Although the Court's ruling was only a recommendation - made
at the time to pacify the tension between the winning coalition and
the opposition parties - the opposition parties want to use the
referendum as a platform to challenge Kocharian's legitimacy.

Another factor for the renewal of demonstrations is the mistaken
notion by the opposition that the existing social and economic
discontent of the people towards the government would automatically be
translated into popular support to their cause. However, the fact
remains that neither the governing coalition parties nor the
opposition have the basic political skills to identify and address the
issues that the population is facing, to adopt those issues and then
to use them as a rallying point to lead the masses in either direction.
This lack of ideology or platform is reinforced by the fact that the
leaderships on either side of the fence have more similarities with
each other - such as the cushy standard of life that the leaders enjoy,
rampant cronyism and nepotism - than they do with the masses. The
people do realize the extent to which the opposition leadership is
hypocritical; however, not having any alternative, they find
themselves supporting them.

Hence, the overall driving force behind the demonstrations was the
poor socio-economic condition of the masses. The opposition leadership
did not plan or organize the demonstrations beforehand and hoped that
the disenchanted masses would automatically support them in their
quest to oust Kocharian from power. Moreover, the lack of any ideology
or socio-economic and political platform on the opposition's side made
the anti-Kocharian rallies nothing more than events where
name-callings and accusations became the norm.

Finally one other factor that should not be ruled out is that the
current opposition drive against the government was primarily fueled
by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutyun Party, which in
December and January expressed its discontent with the 'wait and see'
tactics of the Ardarutyun, of which it is formally a member. The
Ardarutyun parliamentarians representing Hanrapetutyun (Aram Sargsian,
Albert Bazeyan, Smbat Ayvazian) have not taken part in the parliament
sessions since last year. At least in part, this is a result of the
trial of Armen Sargsian, brother of Aram and Vazgen (the former slain
PM). Armen Sargsian was charged with ordering the December 2002 murder
of TV head Tigran Naghdalian. The Sargsian trial ended in January
2004, when the Court of Cassation turned down his appeal. The reason
this matters in the context of the current opposition campaign is that
Aram Z. Sargsian did not protest against Kocharian too hard, hoping to
reach a compromise to release his brother from prison. With the court
verdict finalized and no hope of appeal, the only option to get Armen
out of jail is to either get an executive clemency from the President
or to remove Kocharian from power. As soon as the verdict was
finalized, Hanrapetutyun began consultations, eventually reconciling
Geghamian and Demirchian and making it possible to begin the protest
campaign.


A COALITION IN PANIC?

Despite the assurances by the government and the ruling coalition
parties that the demonstrations in Armenia should not cause any
concern and that they are only superficial, the way the government
handled the demonstrators tells a different story. The extent to which
the government manhandled the demonstrators shows that the ruling
coalition was far from feeling secure and that President Kocharian was
not willing to take any chances to let the opposition undermine his
authority and control.

When the opposition parties announced their intention to hold a rally
on April 12 on Baghramian Avenue, the government took some preemptive
measures by arresting prominent figures in the opposition parties;
this was a sign of Kocharian's own weakness and insecurity more than
an indication of the strength or popularity of the
opposition. However, a large number of demonstrators - anywhere
between 10,000 and 15,000 - did gather on Baghramian Avenue to march
on to the Parliament and the President's office, only to be stopped by
cordons of police and internal security forces. Up until this point
there had been several skirmishes between supporters of Kocharian and
the opposition; however, there were no indicators that the worst was
yet to come.

In the early hours of April 13, when about 2,000 demonstrators were
peacefully gathered on Baghramian Avenue, riot police along with
internal security forces and plain-clothed supporters of Kocharian
tried to disperse the masses by using water cannons, stun and tear
grenades and clubs. The ensued melee resulted in the injury of many
demonstrators as well as reporters who were among the demonstrators
trying to cover the events. The opposition thus exploited the
repression against the demonstrators since it had little else as a
leverage to force Kocharian out of power.

It should be noted that within the ruling coalition, there have been
signs of discontent, especially with the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation (ARF), which seems to be caught in between the rock and the
hard place. On the one hand, the ARF realizes that they have to
support Kocharian - with whom they have been allies since the ouster
of former President Ter-Petrossian - and on the other hand, the ARF is
afraid to lose whatever credibility it has as a popular party by being
associated with the government. The ARF's alignment with Kocharian
could be the result of the poor showing that the party had during the
parliamentary elections of last year, during which it did not receive
enough votes to become a major member in the ruling coalition; also,
it was probably because of their close association with Kocharian that
the party received ministerial and parliamentary posts. Perhaps out of
this concern, the ARF tried to defuse the tension by proposing a
dialogue between the government and the opposition, which did not take
place. The ARF's attempted mediation, if successful, could have raised
the party's stature in Armenia's political landscape as a party which
could reach out to both opposition and coalition, and by doing so
could have had created an image of a party concerned with the
well-being of the people rather than just a junior partner in a ruling
coalition. Incidentally, the ARF also faces the danger of losing
credibility since in 1996 they were the most vocal demonstrators
demanding the resignation of Ter-Petrossian, whereas today they are
the ones who are in power and consider the demonstrations as
"dangerously destabilizing" the country.

Regardless of the reasons behind the government's reaction, it should
be clear that the current crisis does not have any constitutional
basis, nor does the opposition call for Kocharian's resignation. The
truth of the matter is that the results of last year's elections were
questionable, and consequently the frustration felt by the opposition
(for losing the elections) and the masses (for the socio-economic
stalemate) converged in their antagonism towards Kocharian. On the
other hand, the government's reaction to the opposition protest is the
result of Kocharian's weakness and insecurity. But violence against
demonstrators is also the only political choice left to him. The
social economic conditions will not change overnight, and he cannot
defuse tensions by dissolving the Parliament, or firing the Cabinet,
since that would drive both PM Antranik Margarian, and Speaker of the
House Arthur Baghdassarian, into opposition and inevitably lead to
Kocharian's resignation. Therefore, all that is left for him to do is
to harass the opposition by using brutal police methods and
administrative lock-ups, degrading its ability to mount protests, and
hoping that it will eventually wither away.


NEITHER MEDIA FREEDOM NOR A FREE MEDIA

One of the most dangerous aspects of the political crisis in Armenia
is the insularity and alienation of the opposing camps. Each side
seems to possess an eschatological conviction about the unique
correctness of their own position and the wickedness of the opponent.
One of the primary reasons for this estrangement is the consistent
failure of the Armenian media to air, discuss, and compare opposite
points of view. All the national television channels are controlled by
either the government or powerful business tycoons, and provide
little, if any, coverage to the opposition. The editorial and news
content of the TV programs resemble the situation under the Soviet
Union, and similar to Soviet era, most Armenian TV viewers simply
ignore the Armenian news broadcasts, turning instead to the Russian
television news or to Radio Liberty, which are also not completely
free of editorial censorship, yet are still more professional.

The print media does not fair any better. The Armenian newspapers,
while generally free of censorship, are split into opposing camps, and
their reporting is influenced by the affiliation with either the
government or the opposition. When the National Unity Party's April 5
rally was disrupted by thugs, the opposition newspapers blamed the
pro-Kocharian tycoons for organizing the commotion, while the
pro-government media blamed the opposition parties. The result is that
the opposition politicians only talk to themselves, meet like-minded
individuals, and read the newspapers sympathetic to them. In a similar
fashion, the people supporting Kocharian or the governing coalition
parties only read or interact with those opposing the opposition. The
demonization of and failure to understand the opposite side accounts
for the high level of confrontation in the current crisis.

On a positive note, Aram Abrahamian, the chief editor of the
opposition newspaper Aravot, was tapped to run a TV station, Kentron
TV, which has recently changed ownership. Abrahamian, who has
extensive experience in the media business, including a stint as
political commentator in A1 Plus Television, has pledged neutrality
and independence in the news coverage of the station. So has the new
owner of Kentron TV, a parliamentarian with ties to the ruling
Republican Party. The unlikely alliance is an indication that the
governing coalition is taking steps to address the negative perception
of the state of free media in Armenia. The success (or failure) of the
new television station will have serious effects on both the internal
political situation and Armenia's standing in the world.


CONCLUSION

The opposition campaign of pressure through rallies appear to have
climaxed without making a serious dent on President Kocharian. At the
same time, the rallies and protests did not go unnoticed both in
Armenia, among the members of the governing coalition, and abroad, at
the Council of Europe in particular. The COE resolution passed on
April 28 called on both the government and opposition to commence
dialog to address Armenia's many challenges. Significantly, the COE
did not endorse the opposition's main demand for a referendum of
confidence in the president.

While rallies continued even after the crackdown of April 12, they
were more a face-saving measure for the opposition parties to show
that the government pressure tactics did not work. Meanwhile, the
Chairman of the National Assembly sponsored political consultations
between the governing coalition and the opposition factions, with both
sides appearing ready to compromise.  The governing coalition parties
are more eager than the President to bridge the gap with the
opposition and accomodate some of their demands, especially on the
electoral legislation, because they are keeping the next election
season - 2007/2008 - in their sights.

Indeed, President Kocharian is in his second and last term as
President of Armenia. Given Armenia's strong presidential system, the
change of power will inevitably occur in 2008. The parliamentary
elections of 2007 will be a rehearsal of the more important
presidential vote in 2008. The political parties need to work hard to
connect with the voters, build a power base, and address the
political, social, and economic challenges facing Armenia, of which
the most important is the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement.

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