Armenia Opposition Abandons Talk Of Revolution

By Rita Karapetian in Yerevan

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
March 6 2009

As Ter-Petrosian distances himself from earlier radical rhetoric –
now talk of coalition government in the air.

When of thousands of Armenians crowded into the centre of Yerevan on
March 1 for a rally commemorating last year’s bloodshed, they may
well have expected to hear fighting talk. If so, they were in for
a disappointment.

Instead, at a meeting held to commemorate the ten people killed last
year in a police charge, the leader of the Armenian National Congress,
ANC, signalled a change of stance.

Levon Ter-Petrosian urged his assembled supporters to abandon all
thought of bringing about political change through street protests and
concentrate on a long struggle waged through exclusively constitutional

"The vocabulary of the ANC has never contained words like ‘storm’,
‘rebellion’ or ‘revolution’ and it never will," the country’s first
president from 1991 to 1998 told the crowd.

Ter-Petrosian said the guiding principle of the ANC was to avoid any
actions that might undermine the interests of the state, its security
and the welfare of its people.

Given the current fragile situation in the country, it would be unwise
to stage permanent street protests, marches and pickets, he continued.

The opposition leader said there was a chance the authorities might
offer to form a coalition government – and, significantly, he did
not rule out the option.

Instead, if the offer were made, it would be up to ANC supporters to
decide whether this was a good idea.

Anything between 20,000 and 60,000 people had gathered near
Matenadaran, the ancient manuscripts museum, in central Yerevan,
to listen to Ter-Petrosian.

The city authorities initially wanted them to hold the meeting outside
Yerevan, but, after negotiations, police allowed the rally to take
place in the centre.

After Ter-Petrosian ended his speech, they marched towards Myasnikian
square, scene of last year’s carnage. Armed police followed them
all the way to the square, where flowers were laid in memory of
the victims.

The ANC described the meeting as a victory – and as proof that a
strong and unbending opposition had emerged in Armenia against a
backdrop of repression and harassment.

But Ter-Petrosian’s pacific tone left some people wondering whether
the opposition had concluded that it might gain more from constructive
dialogue with the authorities than from confrontation.

The government has been signalling for some time that it is ready to
extend its rivals an olive branch.

Naira Zohrabian, from the Prosperous Armenia Party, a member of the
ruling coalition, said dialogue might indeed be possible if a national
accord was what the opposition wanted.

"I am sure the president’s proposal to establish a dialogue with the
opposition remains in force," she said. President Serzh Sargsian raised
the possibilities of negotiation when meeting diaspora representatives
in Moscow last June.

"I am ready to negotiate and work with any political group, taking
into considerations the interests of Armenia," he said, while also
accusing the opposition of destabilising the country.

But some opposition members were clearly caught off guard at the
recent rally, insisting their leader’s words were misunderstood.

Levon Zurabian, ANC coordinator, insisted dialogue with the government
remained impossible so long as the March 1 detainees, seen by them
as political prisoners, remained in jail.

The violence that erupted on March 1, 2008, was the culmination
of two weeks of large-scale opposition protests that followed the
presidential election won by Sargsian, then prime minister and leader
of the ruling Republican Party.

Ten people were killed when riot police were sent in to break up the
rally. No one was convicted over those deaths. Moreover, dozens of
opposition supporters were detained, tried and handed jail sentences.

A case involving seven members of the ANC, including a former foreign
minister and three parliamentarians, all charged with attempting to
overthrow the government, is still pending.

Following the March 2008 clashes, Ter-Petrosian urged all the
opposition forces to unite and 18 parties heeded the call, now forming
part of his ANC.

The most significant are Stepan Demirchain’s Popular Party and the
Republic Party of former prime minister Aram Sarkisian.

Currently, the only opposition force represented in parliament is the
Heritage Party, headed by ex-foreign minister Raffi Hovhannissian,
which is not part of the ANC.

The March 2008 events led the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of
Europe, or PACE, of which Armenia is a member, to consider imposing
sanctions, including depriving Armenia’s delegates of the right
to vote.

Finally, the organisation merely urged Armenia to improve its human
rights record and free opposition detainees.

Speculation is growing that the government, which seems to have
interpreted Ter-Petrosian’s address as a call for dialogue, may now
amnesty the jailed men as a signal of its own readiness to negotiate.

The vice-chair of the Republican Party, Razmik Zohrabian, told Radio
Freedom, "The opposition’s decision to take the constitutional road
is laudable. I think one of the issues that might be negotiated is
an amnesty."

But another reason why the opposition may feel its move to abandon
radical tactics is timely is because it believes economic trends are
undermining the government.

In his address, Ter-Petrosian noted that as the global economic
crisis continued to spread, it would not be long before the government
revealed its ineffectiveness and "crumbled".

Certainly, the global downturn is increasingly being felt in
Armenia. People have been warned they will have to pay higher utility
bills from April, for example.

The rise in energy prices will probably also result in more expensive
public transport and higher prices for food, all of which observers
believe have the potential to trigger public anger.

Harutiun Khachatrian, an economics commentator for the Noayn Topan
news agency, said popular protests were almost inevitable.

"We already have the staff of one of the capital’s largest clothing
markets on strike and this is only the start," he said.

The same expert said the scale of the protests would depend on a
number of factors, including how many Armenian labour migrants had
to return home from Russia and other countries.

Khachatrian said the date of the next opposition rally, May Day,
had not been set by accident, as the economic situation was widely
expected to have become graver by then.

Other observers link the May date to the forthcoming May elections
for a new mayor of Yerevan.

As around a third of the country’s population lives in the capital,
the party whose candidate wins this key contest stands to benefit
greatly in national influence.

Moreover, the ANC and Heritage have said they may team up for the
election and propose a joint candidate.

At the same time, however, each of the opposition parties ideally wants
to see its own candidate leading the list, so this may prove difficult.

Some media reported that the ANC will put Demirchain forward as their
mayoral candidate, while Heritage may nominate Hovhanessian.

A Heritage spokesman, Hovsep Khurshudianm, told IWPR that negotiations
with the ANC would be "intensive", adding, "Anyway, we have already
started drawing up our own list."

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