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Review & Outlook - 05/17/2006

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West of Eden

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 17, 2006

The announcement on May 11, that Artur Baghdasarian will resign from his
post as the speaker of Armenia's parliament and that his party, Orinats
Yerkir (Country of Law) will withdraw from the ruling coalition has
redrawn Armenia's political landscape significantly.

The schism between Orinats Yerkir (OY) and the ruling coalition -
comprised of the Republican Party of Armenia and the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation (ARF) - has been escalating over the past
several weeks when Baghdasarian stepped up his criticism of the
government on the latter's both foreign and domestic policies.
Considered by many as a leading presidential candidate for the election
to take place in 2008, Baghdasarian's approach of distancing himself
from Russia and embracing the West has raised many eyebrows both within
and outside Armenia.  Baghdasarian has also been criticizing the
government on its domestic social and economic policies which, he
argued, has led to unequal development and social injustice in the
country.

President Robert Kocharian - who effectively oversees the coalition -
utilized a strategy to weaken Baghdasarian's grip over his party and the
parliament by encouraging parliamentary members from OY to defect,
effectively halving the party's parliamentary presence. Several of the
defectors were wealthy businessmen who rely on the government protection
or favoritism and hence their breaking rank - with what was viewed as
increased attacks on Kocharian - was expected.

With only 9 seats in the 131 member parliament and out of the ruling
coalition, Baghdasarian is now faced with two choices. Either join hands
with the opposition - or some elements within it - or follow his own
path of opposing the Kocharian administration separately. In the case of
the former choice, it is quite possible that the addition of yet a new
individual in the individual based opposition would weaken those who
oppose Kocharian since over the past several years the opposition was
unable, and unwilling, to unite behind a single person to challenge the
President. In that case the rivalry as to who should be the next
presidential candidate to run against Kocharian's approved - and perhaps
handpicked - successor might result in the election of the pro-Kocharian
candidate. The ruling coalition however, does not seem to be influenced
by the departure of OY since the pro-Kocharian members in the parliament
still hold a majority and "independent" members of the parliament
already formed a parliamentary block to support the president.

Although Baghdasarian left the ruling coalition, many reports mentioned
that he refrained from antagonizing Kocharian or to attack him
personally, rather keeping his overall opposition based on policy. While
in developed and functioning democracies this might be considered a
normal reaction, Armenia is far from having an institutionalized party
system and local politics is highly based on individuals and the deals
they make with power centers in the country.

OY, which boasts a party membership of over 60, 000 is yet another
example of how political parties in Armenia are the end result of
personalities rather than ideologies. It is highly doubtful that the
party - in its current form and structure - would remain active in
political processes since it is already apparent that the party members
who have ministerial or governorship positions have refused to resign
preferring to cling on to power rather than to party principles.  This
phenomenon is not uncommon in Armenia (or any of the former Soviet
republics) where only a handful of parties have been able to have a
consistent base of supporters whereas the remaining political groupings
have mostly been a pre- or post- election blocks supporting the person
in power. For instance the once all powerful Armenian National Movement
(HHSh) has been transformed into a group with little - if any -
influence on the political processes in Armenia. From this perspective,
the real challenge for OY now is not the fact that the party has to
realign itself in the highly polarized government-opposition spectrum
but to show to what extent the 60,000 party members are people who
believe in the party's ideology rather than are opportunists riding on
the once popularity wave of OY.

The major questions that need to be raised - and hopefully answered -
with this new development are: Was Baghdasarian's forceful resignation a
result of him being too vocal against Kocharian - and by extension to
Serj Sarkisian - and their pro-Russian policies? If that is the case
then why did Baghdasarian have a change of heart after almost 2 years of
cooperating with both men? One possible answer might be that
Baghdasarian was the "pro-Western" individual in the administration's
"complementary foreign policy," while Sarkisian played the same role
with Russia. Baghdasarian may have inadvertently put the ruling
coalition in a self-contradictory and untenable position, and had to be
pushed off of the scale before everyone fell out of Moscow's favor.

Was Baghdasarian trying to distance himself from the ruling group in
preparation for his presidential bid in 2008? If so then he might have
crossed the line too far and by embracing the West (vs. Russia) he might
have forced Moscow to utilize the leverages that it has in Armenia to
sideline him before another former "colony" went out of orbit similar to
Georgia or Ukraine.

Has Baghdasarian fallen out of favor and will be just another figure in
an already mosaic-like opposition in Armenia? if yes then perhaps he
could join hands with some of the opposition members and promote himself
as someone who, as an insider, knows how things are done and who is
therefore better equipped and more knowledgeable to solve the issue that
the country faces.

Regardless of the answers the end result of this resignation was not a
demonstration that Armenia has a "functioning democracy where
disagreements are normal" - as claimed by many pro-government
individuals.  It is rather a manifestation of a lack of political
institutions which have check and/or balance to the powers of the
executive, and that these institutions could be manipulated by strongmen
to accommodate and preserve the power balance existing in the country.


--
Dr. Asbed Kotchikian is a political scientist specializing in and
teaching courses on the South Caucasus and the Middle East. Comments
to the author may be emailed to asbed@hotmail.com.

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