FAILED NEGOTIATIONS SUGGEST RENEWED POLITICAL CONFRONTATION IN ARMENIA
Negotiations between Armenia’s government and the main opposition force, the Armenian National Congress, have come to a halt. After a week of day-and-night rallies, demanding the immediate resignation of the incumbent president and snap elections, the opposition eventually announced that it was getting ready for the regular parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2012. These developments were taking place against the background of an apparent rift within the government camp, caused by rumors about the possible return of Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan into active politics.
BACKGROUND: Armenia’s current political landscape is shaped by the confrontation between the government coalition, lead by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), headed by the incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan, and the most influential opposition force, the Armenian National Congress (ANC), headed by Armenia’s first president, Levon-Ter-Petrosyan. The opposition refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the incumbent government claiming that the presidential elections of 2008 were falsified. It also blames the government for the violent crackdown on post-elections protests that took place on March 1, 2008, resulting in 10 deaths and the detention of numerous opposition activists.
Negotiations between ANC and the government coalition began in spring 2011, as the opposition activists who remained in jail by that time were released. However, from the onset of the negotiations both sides viewed them in completely different contexts. The ANC claimed that the main aim of the negotiations was holding snap elections, while the government responded that snap elections were off the table.
The negotiations were not progressing towards any kind of agreement when several activists were detained following a violent incident involving ANC activists and the police. Most activists were soon released but one of them, Tigran Arakelyan, remained under detention. ANC declared that no dialogue could take place unless he was released. Government officials responded by claiming that Arakelyan was charged with a criminal offence and that they could not affect his release as they had no power over judicial bodies.
In the absence of negotiations, the ANC called for a sit-in at the Liberty Square in central Yerevan on September 30. Most devoted ANC activists stayed through the night in a makeshift tent camp erected on the square, and larger rallies took place during the day. While the police made no attempts to break down the rally, the protesters complained that the authorities attempted to create inconveniences for the protesters, claims denied by law enforcement officials. The sit-in lasted for a week and was called off in early October. Even though the ANC claimed that the sit-in was a success, some opposition supporters were disappointed by the fact that the rallies failed to reach the momentum of similar protests after the disputed elections in February 2008.
In this context, the leadership of the ANC apparently decided that its declared goal of forcing the government to hold snap elections was unrealistic. While the ANC did not withdraw its calls for snap elections, it announced during a rally on October 28 that it did consider taking part in the regular parliamentary election, due to take place in May 2012. This signified a major change for the ANC, which declared that its new strategy would be to gain a majority in the new parliament and use this majority in order to impeach the incumbent president.
The context in which the ANC’s protests were taking place was influenced by rifts appearing in the government coalition, prompted by an interview with Armenia’s second president Kocharyan, in which he declared that he did not rule out the option of returning to active politics. In spite of its vagueness, Kocharyan’s declaration led to speculations that Kocharyan was planning a comeback in order to replace the incumbent president Sargsyan, inspired by Russian Prime Minister Putin’s decision to run for the presidency. This situation of uncertainty provoked internal tensions within the ruling coalition, reportedly leading to the resignation of Karen Karapetyan, Yerevan’s mayor and formerly a close ally of Kocharyan (although Karapetyan himself strongly denies this claim). Suggestions that the government coalition is going through a serious internal crisis seem to be confirmed by other high-profile resignations that followed, including resignations of the speaker of parliament and the chief of police. It is difficult to establish to what extent this interpretation reflects actual reality, since developments within the government camp are mostly sealed off from the eyes of the wider public.
IMPLICATIONS: The failure of dialogue between ANC and the government coalition hints that Armenian politics may be returning to a confrontational style, which was its main characteristic in the run-up to the 2008 elections and its immediate aftermath. As became clear by mid-August, the negotiations were doomed as both sides were locked in a situation in which neither could afford concessions, which could erode their support bases. However, both sides reaped tactical benefits from the negotiations. For the government, they were important in terms of foreign relations, as evidence to the international community that it respected democratic principles and was open for dialogue. In turn, the ANC benefitted from the negotiations since it helped securing an important advantage vis-à-vis other opposition parties. Though ANC has lost some supporters since 2008, it still retains a network of regional cells and a core of devoted activists, which may give the ANC an advantage over other groups that claim to oppose the government coalition. Therefore, the ANC is well positioned to become the frontrunner for the opposition camp in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
However, the situation might change in the case of a breakup of the governing coalition. Tensions between the coalition’s largest and second largest members, the RPA and the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), have lead some analysts to suggest that PAP might leave the coalition. Yet, others argue that an open break between PAP and the incumbent president is unlikely, since a majority of the party’s influential members hold important positions in the state hierarchy and business, which might be at risk if they leave the government coalition. Some observers link PAP to Kocharyan, who initiated the foundation of the party when he was president. PAP leaders, however, have repeatedly emphasized in their public statements that their party is an autonomous actor.
Besides, it is not clear whether Kocharyan will support incumbent Sargsyan in the upcoming elections or try to challenge him. Kocharyan and Sargsyan were close allies throughout Kocharyan’s presidency (1998-2008) when Sargsyan occupied important posts, including Minister of Defense and Prime Minister. In 2008, some expected that Kocharyan and Sargsyan would replicate the Russian arrangement in Armenia, with Kocharyan becoming Prime Minister. However, these expectations were proven wrong as Kocharyan retired from active political life in 2008. However, rumors about his possible return to active politics and alleged disagreements between the two figures continued to circulate in Armenian political circles.
These rumors received a boost with the news of Putin’s planned return to the Russian presidency, prompting suggestions that Kocharyan may also attempt a return to active politics. At this point, however, most analysts believe that it would be difficult for Kocharyan to follow Putin’s example, since the nature of relations between Sargsyan and Kocharyan has been completely different from the relationship between Medvedev and Putin. Sargsyan is firmly in control of all government institutions, and during his presidency Kocharyan never enjoyed an influence comparable to that of Putin in Russia. Therefore, Kocharyan’s potential return to active politics might lead to tensions between Kocharyan and Sargsyan. Moreover, this would imply the risk of a breakdown of the government coalition since many members of the existing coalition are still loyal to Kocharyan. Another possible option is a power sharing agreement between Kocharyan and Sargsyan aimed at preserving the unity of the government camp. However, in spite of the speculations about Kocharyan’s return, most observers still consider such a scenario unlikely in the current situation since Sargsyan firmly controls most government institutions. Besides, a replay of the Russian scenario in Armenia might lead a negative reaction from the U.S. and European institutions such as the Council of Europe and the EU, something that Armenia’s ruling elite is unwilling to risk.
CONCLUSIONS: The breakdown of the negotiations between ANC and the government coalition has increased the tensions in Armenia’s political life, both between the opposition and the government and among different groups within the government coalition. It can be expected that the confrontation will become tenser as the May 2012 elections get closer. However, on a brighter note, increased competition both between the opposition and the government and between different groups within the government could also contribute to a situation favorable for truly competitive elections in 2012.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Mikayel Zolyan is an independent political analyst based in Yerevan.