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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 email@example.com.