Garbis: Armenian Politics Stagnate While Threat To Statehood Looms

By Christian Garbis

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September 23, 2009

YEREVAN-On the surface, Armenian citizens seem to be divided into two
camps-those who enthusiastically support the government and those in
sheer defiance, regardless of whether those opinions are made public
or held secret. There are no popular parties per se, with none of them
actively campaigning for wide public support. The ruling Republican
Party is no exception, being overwhelmingly endorsed by government
employees and those with ties to the ruling elite.

At a time when Armenia has been courting Turkey to jumpstart relations
under highly controversial conditions against its own favor, the stew
of Armenian politics should be boiling over. Yet strangely enough,
concern over the protocols that are meant to forge Turkish-Armenian
relations once they are ratified in mid-October is faint.

President Serge Sarkisian’s Republican Party has been fervently
supporting the protocols in partnership with its junior coalition
parties, Prosperous Armenia and Orinats Yerkir. The government
leadership insists that the protocols ensure Armenia’s economic
prosperity for all, without revealing specifics about how growth
is perceived to be gained and what financial sectors are expected
to expand.

The ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, which has been in "positive opposition" to
the government since the end of April, has been stepping up efforts
to attract attention in its efforts to have several points in the
highly controversial protocols amended.

Among the proposed amendments, the party is calling for diplomatic
relations between Turkey and Armenia to be established without
preconditions. The party is also opposed to the formation of a
historical commission that would seek to establish whether the events
of 1915 constituted genocide.

About 50 party members are taking part in a sit-in hunger strike
(the protestors take turns breaking their fast every two days) in
front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Republic Square, where
signatures are also being collected in support of the amendments to
the protocols that the party has drafted.

However, the Republican majority leader in parliament, Galust Sahakian,
was quick to declare the amendments unacceptable. Then, on Sept. 16,
Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian made it clear in his address to the
National Assembly that the amendments would be considered only after
the protocols are signed and sent to parliament for deliberation
and ratification. This was found to be unacceptable by the ARF,
as announced by party official Armen Rustamian the following day.

As the Republican Party holds the majority of parliamentary seats
and enjoys the backing of its two coalition partners, any proposed
amendments are sure to be shot down in session moments before the
protocols’ ratification. Consequently, the ARF’s true intensions and
the anticipated results from its protests remain ambiguous before a
confused public trying to ascertain the party’s motives.

Meanwhile, the oppositional Heritage Party, founded by Raffi
Hovhannisian, which holds seven seats in parliament, had been
insisting that a public referendum be held on whether to accept or
reject the protocols. The initiative was subsequently dismissed by
the Republican Party.

Yet, the Heritage Party’s firm stance on the rejection of the
protocols has been overshadowed by the controversial upheaval within
its ranks. Three members of the party, Movses Aristakesyan, Zoya
Tadevosyan, and Vardan Khachatryan, were expelled from the ranks,
having been accused of secretly collaborating with both opposition
and pro-government parties, the specifics of which remain unclear.

Just before the party’s shakeup, Hovhannisian resigned from his seat
in the National Assembly under mysterious circumstances while out of
the country. Rumors were spread by Tadevosyan that Hovhannisian had
submitted a letter to the party’s governing board announcing his
resignation from the party as well as from political life, while
Khachatryan claimed that Hovhannisian had been aware of the secret
negotiations all along. It was not until Sept. 21 that Hovhannisian
made scathing comments against the compromising actions of his party
members in a released statement. He is due to give a press conference
on Oct. 1 to explain his resignation from parliament and give insight
on the future of the Heritage Party.

Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian had been highly critical of
talks between the Turkish and Armenian leaderships-that lead to the
infamous formation of the "framework," signed in April for developing
diplomatic relations between the two countries.

In his address at a rally held on Sept. 18 in Yerevan organized by
the oppositional Armenian National Congress-a coalition of several
oppositional parties unofficially led by Ter-Petrosian-that was
attended by several thousand people, he mainly focused his remarks
on the Nagorno-Karabagh negotiations. Ter-Petrosian deems the peace
proposals unacceptable, claiming that they are more conciliatory
than those that were presented during his presidential term in 1997,
specifically referring to the exclusion of a point stipulating the
return of Azeri refugees to their homes. Most of his speech was
perceived as an academic address to the crowds, with no proposed
solutions that would be more in Armenia’s favor and no calls for
action delivered to his supporters.

Ter-Petrosian during the rally failed to comment further on his stance
regarding the current negotiations between Turkey and Armenia, instead
insisting that the border would not open anytime soon. On Sept. 2,
the Armenian National Congress released a statement in reaction to
the protocols, claiming that "substantial progress" had been made in
calls for establishing relations between Armenia and Turkey.

Despite the shroud of uncertainty that has been draped across the
Armenian masses looking for answers, one thing is for certain: If any
of the opposition parties are indeed serious about enacting change
in the way the country is being governed, not to mention protecting
Armenian foreign policy from inevitable disaster, they need to exploit
the controversy surrounding the protocols to the hilt, and do it
quickly. A unified effort is probably unlikely, given the Heritage
Party’s internal turmoil and the aloofness of Ter-Petrosian.

An all-out aggressive, convincing measure against the protocols will
be the only way for the parties to rally the public behind them,
assuming they want to prevent the protocols from being signed. Yet
all three players-the Armenian National Congress, the Heritage Party,
and especially the ARF-have yet to step up to the plate.