Armenian Goverment Calm After Coalition Break-Up

Haroutiun Khachatrian for Eurasianet

ISN, Switzerland
May 23 2006

The resignation of Armenian parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian
may signal his preparation for a higher office. But, even though he
has left his post, the effect on the government appears to be minimal.

Artur Baghdasarian formally vacated on 22 May his post as Armenia’s
parliamentary speaker, completing the withdrawal of his Orinats Yerkir
Party from the country’s governing coalition. Experts in Yerevan don’t
expect the shake-up to have much of an immediate impact on government
policy, but suggest that the withdrawal could boost both Baghdasarian’s
and his party’s political fortunes in upcoming elections.

Addressing MPs after the acceptance of his letter of resignation,
Baghdasarian sounded like a politician already on the campaign trail.

Armenia is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in 2007 and a
presidential poll the following year. “Social surveys show that 70
per cent of Armenia’s population is afraid […] We will fight for a
free society,” Baghdasarian said, according to a report distributed
by the A1-Plus web site. “When we said that the state must support
young families, they [political rivals] said it was populism. It is
not populism; it is the road to the development of our country.”

Baghdasarian also maintained it was in the country’s best interest
to pursue integration with Western economic and security structures,
while attempting to cast Orinats Yerkir’s departure from the governing
coalition as the party leadership’s choice. “Many good things have
been accomplished, but many have been left out,” Baghdasarian said,
referring to his party’s participation in the governing coalition. “Now
we have decided to follow our own route.”

In addressing parliament, Baghdasarian studiously avoided criticism
of President Robert Kocharian.

Baghdasarian signaled on 12 May his intention to resign as speaker,
a day after party leaders voted to pull out of the coalition. Although
seeking to portray themselves as the initiators, many experts believe
that Prime Minister Andranik Markarian pushed Orinats Yerkir, or the
Country of Law party, out of the coalition for conduct damaging to the
government’s interests. In the weeks leading up to his resignation,
the former speaker had been outspoken in his criticism of the
government’s continued reliance on a special political relationship
with Russia. Starting with an 19 April interview published in the
influential German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he began to
make forceful appeals for Armenia to turn away from Russia and toward
the European Union and NATO.

Markarian has maintained that Baghdasarian’s actions constituted
a violation of a 2003 power-sharing agreement, which stated that
coalition members would attempt to reconcile policy differences in
private before making them public. Baghdasarian evidently made no
attempt to do so before the newspaper interview’s appearance. Orinats
Yerkir was created in 1998, thrusting Baghdasarian, who was at the
time only 30 years old, into the center of Armenian political life.

The party, with apparently strong backing from Kocharian and other
top leaders, gained eight seats in the 1999 parliamentary vote,
and went on to secure 20 in the 2003 elections.

Over the near term, experts in Yerevan believe few, if any policy
changes will occur, as the government retains a solid majority
in parliament. On some issues, including the political future of
Nagorno-Karabakh, Orinats Yerkir’s position remains closely aligned
with those of the governing coalition, which also includes Markarian’s
Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Following
the 2003 parliamentary elections, Orinats Yerkir had the second largest
parliamentary faction, and it received three ministerial portfolios
under the power-sharing agreement. Amid Baghdasarian’s spat with other
governing coalition leaders, the party experienced a considerable
number of defections. The 10 lawmakers who left Orinats Yerkir’s
parliamentary faction have established themselves as independents,
retaining a pro-government orientation.

The party also lost three cabinet portfolios allocated to it under
the 2003 power-sharing agreement.

Though currently operating in a severely weakened state, many observers
expect Orinats Yerkir to quickly recover, and, ultimately, benefit
from leaving the coalition. Re-casting itself as an opposition force
will likely increase the party’s competitiveness in the 2007 vote,
analysts say. “It will be beneficial to create an image of a party
that suffered due to the actions of authorities,” said a commentary
published by the Iravunk opposition weekly.

Iravunk went on to suggest Baghdasarian likely has his eye on
the presidency, saying that he “may have good chances later to
follow the path of Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, to
make a turn from the ‘internal opposition of the authorities’ to an
‘orange opposition'”. But Baghdasarian has steadfastly sought to avoid
comparisons with the leaders of the recent revolutions in Ukraine and
neighboring Georgia. At a 12May news conference, he did not seek to
antagonize his erstwhile political allies, and insisted it was “too
early” to discuss the possibility of his candidacy for the presidency.

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