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DIGGING DEEP IN TRENCHES: THE OPPOSITION IN ARMENIA FACES STALEMATE Armenian News Network / Groong May 13, 2004 After weeks of promises to force President Robert Kocharian out of office, the opposition parties in Armenia started a series of protests and demonstration first in various cities of Armenia and then in the capital itself. Although the opposition parties managed to have a united stand, the protests have yet to achieve their goals. The ruling coalition, on the other hand, condemned the attempts of the opposition party to "destabilize" the country and supported the regime's actions to disperse the protesters and bring the country back to order. During the demonstrations, several incidents have raised questions about Armenia's capabilities and commitments to develop a relatively stable and democratic country. The country's track record - which until a year ago was, relatively speaking, one of the better ones in the region - was tainted first by the presidential, then parliamentary elections in 2003, and subsequently received a blow with the latest harsh treatments of the demonstrators and the media representatives in the hands of the security forces. AN OPPOSITION WITHOUT RAISON D'JTRE The current campaign by the opposition to depose President Kocharian could be attributed to several factors. First of all, the successful "rose revolution" in Georgia and the euphoria it created spilled over to Armenia and gave the opposition an impetus to make similar changes in Armenia in the hope that the international governmental and non-governmental organizations which supported the Georgian opposition would do the same in Armenia. However, the only similarity between the events in Georgia and those in Armenia is the fact that the demonstrations in both countries were a result of elections full of fraud and irregularities. The difference between the two events is that, whereas the opposition in Georgia had a strong unifying ideology (to fight against rampant corruption and nepotism), the opposition in Armenia is mostly based on discontent with Kocharian. In this respect, the Georgian revolution could not offer a point of reference or be an adequate comparison; instead, the current events could be compared with what happened 8 years ago when former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who also faced a questionable election, had to use the state security apparatus to reestablish order in the country. The second factor for the "revilatization" of the opposition was the fact that the campaign coincided with the first anniversary of Kocharian's election as president for a second term. Also after the elections, the Constitutional Court had decided to hold a referendum a year after the elections to evaluate the President's first year in office. Although the Court's ruling was only a recommendation - made at the time to pacify the tension between the winning coalition and the opposition parties - the opposition parties want to use the referendum as a platform to challenge Kocharian's legitimacy. Another factor for the renewal of demonstrations is the mistaken notion by the opposition that the existing social and economic discontent of the people towards the government would automatically be translated into popular support to their cause. However, the fact remains that neither the governing coalition parties nor the opposition have the basic political skills to identify and address the issues that the population is facing, to adopt those issues and then to use them as a rallying point to lead the masses in either direction. This lack of ideology or platform is reinforced by the fact that the leaderships on either side of the fence have more similarities with each other - such as the cushy standard of life that the leaders enjoy, rampant cronyism and nepotism - than they do with the masses. The people do realize the extent to which the opposition leadership is hypocritical; however, not having any alternative, they find themselves supporting them. Hence, the overall driving force behind the demonstrations was the poor socio-economic condition of the masses. The opposition leadership did not plan or organize the demonstrations beforehand and hoped that the disenchanted masses would automatically support them in their quest to oust Kocharian from power. Moreover, the lack of any ideology or socio-economic and political platform on the opposition's side made the anti-Kocharian rallies nothing more than events where name-callings and accusations became the norm. Finally one other factor that should not be ruled out is that the current opposition drive against the government was primarily fueled by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutyun Party, which in December and January expressed its discontent with the 'wait and see' tactics of the Ardarutyun, of which it is formally a member. The Ardarutyun parliamentarians representing Hanrapetutyun (Aram Sargsian, Albert Bazeyan, Smbat Ayvazian) have not taken part in the parliament sessions since last year. At least in part, this is a result of the trial of Armen Sargsian, brother of Aram and Vazgen (the former slain PM). Armen Sargsian was charged with ordering the December 2002 murder of TV head Tigran Naghdalian. The Sargsian trial ended in January 2004, when the Court of Cassation turned down his appeal. The reason this matters in the context of the current opposition campaign is that Aram Z. Sargsian did not protest against Kocharian too hard, hoping to reach a compromise to release his brother from prison. With the court verdict finalized and no hope of appeal, the only option to get Armen out of jail is to either get an executive clemency from the President or to remove Kocharian from power. As soon as the verdict was finalized, Hanrapetutyun began consultations, eventually reconciling Geghamian and Demirchian and making it possible to begin the protest campaign. A COALITION IN PANIC? Despite the assurances by the government and the ruling coalition parties that the demonstrations in Armenia should not cause any concern and that they are only superficial, the way the government handled the demonstrators tells a different story. The extent to which the government manhandled the demonstrators shows that the ruling coalition was far from feeling secure and that President Kocharian was not willing to take any chances to let the opposition undermine his authority and control. When the opposition parties announced their intention to hold a rally on April 12 on Baghramian Avenue, the government took some preemptive measures by arresting prominent figures in the opposition parties; this was a sign of Kocharian's own weakness and insecurity more than an indication of the strength or popularity of the opposition. However, a large number of demonstrators - anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 - did gather on Baghramian Avenue to march on to the Parliament and the President's office, only to be stopped by cordons of police and internal security forces. Up until this point there had been several skirmishes between supporters of Kocharian and the opposition; however, there were no indicators that the worst was yet to come. In the early hours of April 13, when about 2,000 demonstrators were peacefully gathered on Baghramian Avenue, riot police along with internal security forces and plain-clothed supporters of Kocharian tried to disperse the masses by using water cannons, stun and tear grenades and clubs. The ensued melee resulted in the injury of many demonstrators as well as reporters who were among the demonstrators trying to cover the events. The opposition thus exploited the repression against the demonstrators since it had little else as a leverage to force Kocharian out of power. It should be noted that within the ruling coalition, there have been signs of discontent, especially with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which seems to be caught in between the rock and the hard place. On the one hand, the ARF realizes that they have to support Kocharian - with whom they have been allies since the ouster of former President Ter-Petrossian - and on the other hand, the ARF is afraid to lose whatever credibility it has as a popular party by being associated with the government. The ARF's alignment with Kocharian could be the result of the poor showing that the party had during the parliamentary elections of last year, during which it did not receive enough votes to become a major member in the ruling coalition; also, it was probably because of their close association with Kocharian that the party received ministerial and parliamentary posts. Perhaps out of this concern, the ARF tried to defuse the tension by proposing a dialogue between the government and the opposition, which did not take place. The ARF's attempted mediation, if successful, could have raised the party's stature in Armenia's political landscape as a party which could reach out to both opposition and coalition, and by doing so could have had created an image of a party concerned with the well-being of the people rather than just a junior partner in a ruling coalition. Incidentally, the ARF also faces the danger of losing credibility since in 1996 they were the most vocal demonstrators demanding the resignation of Ter-Petrossian, whereas today they are the ones who are in power and consider the demonstrations as "dangerously destabilizing" the country. Regardless of the reasons behind the government's reaction, it should be clear that the current crisis does not have any constitutional basis, nor does the opposition call for Kocharian's resignation. The truth of the matter is that the results of last year's elections were questionable, and consequently the frustration felt by the opposition (for losing the elections) and the masses (for the socio-economic stalemate) converged in their antagonism towards Kocharian. On the other hand, the government's reaction to the opposition protest is the result of Kocharian's weakness and insecurity. But violence against demonstrators is also the only political choice left to him. The social economic conditions will not change overnight, and he cannot defuse tensions by dissolving the Parliament, or firing the Cabinet, since that would drive both PM Antranik Margarian, and Speaker of the House Arthur Baghdassarian, into opposition and inevitably lead to Kocharian's resignation. Therefore, all that is left for him to do is to harass the opposition by using brutal police methods and administrative lock-ups, degrading its ability to mount protests, and hoping that it will eventually wither away. NEITHER MEDIA FREEDOM NOR A FREE MEDIA One of the most dangerous aspects of the political crisis in Armenia is the insularity and alienation of the opposing camps. Each side seems to possess an eschatological conviction about the unique correctness of their own position and the wickedness of the opponent. One of the primary reasons for this estrangement is the consistent failure of the Armenian media to air, discuss, and compare opposite points of view. All the national television channels are controlled by either the government or powerful business tycoons, and provide little, if any, coverage to the opposition. The editorial and news content of the TV programs resemble the situation under the Soviet Union, and similar to Soviet era, most Armenian TV viewers simply ignore the Armenian news broadcasts, turning instead to the Russian television news or to Radio Liberty, which are also not completely free of editorial censorship, yet are still more professional. The print media does not fair any better. The Armenian newspapers, while generally free of censorship, are split into opposing camps, and their reporting is influenced by the affiliation with either the government or the opposition. When the National Unity Party's April 5 rally was disrupted by thugs, the opposition newspapers blamed the pro-Kocharian tycoons for organizing the commotion, while the pro-government media blamed the opposition parties. The result is that the opposition politicians only talk to themselves, meet like-minded individuals, and read the newspapers sympathetic to them. In a similar fashion, the people supporting Kocharian or the governing coalition parties only read or interact with those opposing the opposition. The demonization of and failure to understand the opposite side accounts for the high level of confrontation in the current crisis. On a positive note, Aram Abrahamian, the chief editor of the opposition newspaper Aravot, was tapped to run a TV station, Kentron TV, which has recently changed ownership. Abrahamian, who has extensive experience in the media business, including a stint as political commentator in A1 Plus Television, has pledged neutrality and independence in the news coverage of the station. So has the new owner of Kentron TV, a parliamentarian with ties to the ruling Republican Party. The unlikely alliance is an indication that the governing coalition is taking steps to address the negative perception of the state of free media in Armenia. The success (or failure) of the new television station will have serious effects on both the internal political situation and Armenia's standing in the world. CONCLUSION The opposition campaign of pressure through rallies appear to have climaxed without making a serious dent on President Kocharian. At the same time, the rallies and protests did not go unnoticed both in Armenia, among the members of the governing coalition, and abroad, at the Council of Europe in particular. The COE resolution passed on April 28 called on both the government and opposition to commence dialog to address Armenia's many challenges. Significantly, the COE did not endorse the opposition's main demand for a referendum of confidence in the president. While rallies continued even after the crackdown of April 12, they were more a face-saving measure for the opposition parties to show that the government pressure tactics did not work. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the National Assembly sponsored political consultations between the governing coalition and the opposition factions, with both sides appearing ready to compromise. The governing coalition parties are more eager than the President to bridge the gap with the opposition and accomodate some of their demands, especially on the electoral legislation, because they are keeping the next election season - 2007/2008 - in their sights. Indeed, President Kocharian is in his second and last term as President of Armenia. Given Armenia's strong presidential system, the change of power will inevitably occur in 2008. The parliamentary elections of 2007 will be a rehearsal of the more important presidential vote in 2008. The political parties need to work hard to connect with the voters, build a power base, and address the political, social, and economic challenges facing Armenia, of which the most important is the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement.