The Battle For Yerevan


Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, Italy
May 2 2013

by Mikayel Zolyan | Yerevan
2 May 2013

Tensions remain high in Armenia following clashes during the
presidential inauguration of April 9. The opposition hopes are for
a turning point at the May 5 municipal elections in Yerevan, home to
one third of the country’s population

As Armenia’s capital Yerevan is getting ready for the municipal
elections on May 5 2013, the political situation is showing few
signs of cooling off. The crisis that was triggered by the February
18 elections, when opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian refused to
accept official election results, continues. While it seems that
the opposition has so far failed to mount protests strong enough to
force the government to cede to its demands, the opposition is getting
ready for a new fight at the municipal elections in the capital.

The Two Inaugurations According to the Armenian law inauguration of
the president-elect happens forty days after the elections, which,
as elections took place on February 18, meant that April 9 was the
date of the inauguration.

Hovannisian, who had refused to accept the official results of the
elections, which awarded victory to incumbent Sargsyan, had announced
that on April 9 there would be an alternative inauguration ceremony.

Hovannisian’s supporters called on Armenians to take to the street
on April 9 in order to protest what they believed was election fraud
and to show that Sargsyan was not a legitimate president.

Raffi Hovanissian (with the yellow stripes tie) during the April 9
protests (PanARMENIAN Photos) Thus tensions were running high in the
days before the inauguration.

On April 9 Yerevan reminded a battle ground. Police troops in riot
gear were stationed on the major streets, while opposition supporters
started gathering from the morning at the Liberty Square in central
Yerevan, where Hovannisian’s “inauguration of the New Armenia”
was taking place. Many feared the repetition of the tragic events
of March 1 2008, when ten people died and dozens were wounded as
a result of clashes. However, if the March 1 events of 2008 became
one of the most tragic episodes of post-Soviet Armenia’s history,
the events of April 9 2013 will probably be remembered as one of the
most bizarre episodes of Armenian politics.

While traditionally Armenian presidents’ inauguration is taking place
at the Opera House, situated at the Liberty Square, because of the
protests, it had been decided that Sargsyan’s inauguration would
take place at a concert venue far from the city center. Members of
parliament, representing Hovannisian’s “Heritage” party and other
opposition parties boycotted the Sargsyan’s inauguration ceremony.

Another major parliamentary party “Prosperous Armenia”, did not
boycott the inauguration altogether, but its leader Gagik Tsarukyan,
was conspicuously absent. This testified to the increasingly isolated
position, in which Sargsyan and the ruling Republican Party have
found themselves in the aftermath of the February 18 election.

A Kafkaesque moment About the same time as Sargsyan was being sworn
in as president, Hovannisian read out the text of “the Oath for
New Armenia” before his supporters at the Liberty Square. However
this was not enough for most protesters, who wanted to march to the
Presidential Palace.

Hovannisian reluctantly agreed and lead the protesters to Baghramyan
street, where most government buildings are situated and which had
been sealed off by the police. As clashes between the police and the
protesters started breaking out, some activists were detained.

Hovannisian entered negotiations with the Chief of the Police,
Vladimiar Gasparyan, and suggested a compromise solution: instead of
the march towards the Presidential Palace a march to the Memorial of
Genocide Victims.

Some protesters followed Hovannisian, escorted by Gasparyan to the
Memorial, where the opposition leader and the police chief prayed
together. This was probably the most Kafkaesque moment of the day,
especially since at the same time in another part of town tension was
growing between the police and those protesters who refused to leave
Baghramyan street. The stand-off with the police was getting tenser,
but the arrival of Hovannisian and Gasparyan helped to diffuse the
tension and finally, already late at night, remaining protesters
were allowed to march towards the Presidential Palace. However, by
that time many protesters, especially those with more radical views,
had left the stage of the rally, disappointed with what they saw as
Hovannisian’s lack of decisiveness.

First we take Yerevan, then…

Raffi Hovanissian during the April 9 protests (PanARMENIAN Photos)
Thus, the events of April 9 not only dealt a blow to the legitimacy
of Sargsyan as incumbent president, but also somewhat undermined
the image of Hovannisian as the frontrunner of the opposition. He
came under criticism from various figures in the opposition camp,
who accuse him of inefficient leadership. Hovannisian’s supporters
retorted that at least Hovannisian managed to avoid major clashes and
bloodletting. In any case, it may be hard to assess the real outcomes
of April 9 at this point. Civic activist Arsen Kharatyan, who took
part in the demonstrations, agrees that there were certain issues
regarding the organization of the protests. However, he believes it
is important that large-scale violence was averted, especially given
the fact that Armenian society still has not fully recovered from
the shock of the tragedy of March 1 2008.

While some opposition supporters may agree that they have lost a battle
on April 9, they still hope that the municipal elections in Yerevan on
May 5 will become a turning point. Voters in Yerevan, which is home
to one third of Armenia’s population, will be electing the Council
of Elderly of Yerevan, which in turn would choose the mayor.

Six parties and one electoral block have put forward their electoral
lists. A victory for the opposition in the municipal elections could
change the overall balance of power in the country, breaking the
monopoly on power which the Republican Party and its allies have held
for about 15 years. In their campaign Hovannisian’s “Hello Yerevan”
electoral coalition stresses that the municipal elections are the
continuation of the presidential campaign and calls on those voters
who supported Hovannisian not to lose hope in the final victory.

However, the opposition may face serious difficulties in these
elections. The ruling Republican Party is betting on the young mayor of
Yerevan Taron Margaryan, who is not associated with the much hated old
guard of the party and the “oligarchs”. There is also little doubt that
the so-called administrative resource, i.e. the government structures,
will be used to provide the necessary number of votes for the ruling
party. Another factor, which may influence the election result, is
the failure of the opposition to unite. Opposition parties Armenian
National Congress and Dashnaktsutyun, who avoided participation in
the presidential elections, will be taking part in the municipal
election, as well as “Prosperous Party”, which prefers to call itself
“alternative to the government” rather than opposition.

As a result, the pro-opposition vote may be split between these
parties, allowing the ruling Republicans to take control of the
Council of the Elderly. On the other hand, as supporters of these
parties argue, the participation of various opposition forces might
make it more difficult for the pro-government to try to falsify the
election results. In any case, the municipal elections on May 5 may
become instrumental for shaping the political landscape of Armenia
in the years to come.

From: A. Papazian

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