BACKGROUND: At the PAP assembly on February 5, the party’s founder and sponsor Gagik Tsarukyan, who used to avoid open criticism of President Serzh Sargsyan, made a sharply critical statement and announced that his party together with its partners would demand extraordinary presidential and parliamentary elections unless the planned constitution reform was canceled. Two days later, after a PAP activist was brutally beaten (following assaults on other opposition members, including ANC’s vice chairman, MP Aram Manukyan), PAP accused the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and threatened a parliamentary boycott. On February 9, Tsarukyan led a large group of PAP faction MPs on a two-day visit to Moscow, including meetings at several standing committees of the Russian State Duma, with a group of members of the United Russia party faction, and other Russian politicians. Tsarukyan even invited Vladimir Zhirinovsky to visit Armenia on April 24 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
On February 12, Sargsyan responded with a personal attack against Tsarukyan. At a televised meeting with the RPA parliamentary faction, government members, and party officials, Sargsyan called Tsarukyan a “menace,” “evil,” and “illiterate … not capable of understanding what he is given to read” (meaning Tsarukyan’s statement on February 5). Sargsyan instructed the tax service and the police to start inspections of Tsarukyan’s businesses and alleged illicit activities, and also asked the National Assembly leadership to strip Tsarukyan of his parliamentary mandate as he had not attended most of the parliamentary sessions in the previous year. By a presidential decree Tsarukyan was also dismissed from the National Security Council.
The day after Sargsyan’s diatribe, the police started apprehending some of Tsarukyan’s associates; nearly 20 of them, including some MPs, were harassed and subjected to raids on businesses and house searches. Tsarukyan expressed anger and an intention to challenge Sargsyan, and called for nonstop rallies, marches and demonstrations, aiming at widespread civil disobedience and Sargsyan’s resignation. After Tsarukyan’s consultation with leaders of the ANC and the Heritage Party, they made a joint statement about a demonstration on February 20.
However, mediation by two Armenian businessmen based in Russia led to a meeting between Sargsyan and Tsarukyan on February 17. Tsarukyan then announced that the planned demonstration would be cancelled, stating that “there is no goal that may justify spilling even one innocent man’s blood.” After Tsarukyan’s decision to call off mass protests, the police actions against his supporters were suspended; however, the audit of his businesses is ongoing.
IMPLICATIONS: Tsarukyan’s visit to Moscow was seemingly the last drop for Sargsyan, prompting rapid actions to subdue the annoyance posed by the recent stance of PAP and reflecting Sargsyan’s intention to settle the matter quickly in order to concentrate on acute issues in Armenia’s foreign affairs.
On February 16, at the peak of the confrontation, Sargsyan announced that the Armenian-Turkish protocols would be withdrawn from the parliament, where they had been awaiting ratification for nearly five years. Sargsyan justified his decision by “Turkish authorities’ continuous attempts to articulate preconditions” and “the intensified policy of denialism and history revision on the eve of the genocide centennial.” The Armenian-Turkish relations will be widely discussed over the next two months, and Sargsyan will enjoy the support of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun (ARF) – party that has traditionally built its ideology on anti-Turkish rhetoric, as well as a large fraction of the Diaspora.
Sargsyan is also motivated by a need to secure Russian support by showing power and determination. Despite PAP’s and ANC’s pro-Russian attitude, their demonstrations in October 2014 and the intention to stage mass protests starting from February 20 received overwhelmingly negative coverage in the Russian media, as all mass protests in satellite states are viewed in Russia as a potential threat that may supposedly lead to another “color revolution.”
Sargsyan also likely decided to end the confrontation with Tsarukyan as soon as possible to avoid questions on this matter during the visit of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on February 18. In general, pro-government media downplayed the significance of Nuland’s visit and focused on criticizing the U.S. policy, as Nuland urged Armenia to influence the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh to release Azerbaijani prisoners Dilham Askerov and Shahbaz Guliyev, who have been sentenced on charges of subversive activity and murder. However, media avoided mentioning that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had earlier expressed a similar request, more recently sustained by another senior official of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich.
Most importantly, the handling of Tsarukyan allowed Sargsyan to undermine the political opposition and to secure his own position as well as that of the RPA. After Tsarukyan’s decision not to stage mass protests, the ANC’s demonstration on March 1 (the anniversary of the tragic events in 2008, when police attacked demonstrators demanding a revision of the election results, killing ten) had a small turnout. The ANC leadership therefore decided to abstain from further actions until April 24, referring to a need to analyze the situation and to adopt a new strategy. Yet the most likely reason is a very low possibility of mass mobilization, especially as the ANC will not have access to Tsarukyan’s financial resources and television. Also, ANC’s ability to form new alliances seems almost non-existent. The prolonged ill-mannered row between the ANC leadership and former supporters, many of whom left the party after the 2011 decision to cooperate with the PAP, has become even more intense in recent months: the ANC is accused of serving Russia’s interests and, in turn, alleges its opponents of collaboration with President Sargsyan.
PAP’s future significance in Armenian politics is in doubt. After Sargsyan’s verbal attack on Tsarukyan, eleven of Prosperous Armenia’s 36 MPs have left the parliamentary faction. At the party congress on March 5, Tsarukyan himself announced his decision to leave the party and withdraw from politics, and immediately asked the newly elected party council to empty the office premises belonging to him. Former foreign minister Vartan Oskanian and several city mayors followed Tsarukyan, and PAP’s further disintegration seems inevitable.
CONCLUSIONS: The outcome of Tsarukyan’s confrontation with Sargsyan showed that there is virtually no chance that any large business owner, or “oligarch,” will support a meaningful opposition campaign any time soon. In Tsarukyan’s case, the non-transparent origins of his assets made him even more vulnerable, so he backed off in order to keep his assets and personal security. In fact, a number of observers and former members of the ANC have repeatedly warned that such an outcome was likely, but party leaders and their loyal followers not only dismissed such warnings but also labeled skeptics as “sellouts” serving President Sargsyan’s interests.
While two years still remain until the next elections, the RPA will seek to keep its political monopoly intact, aiming to restore the two-third parliamentary majority it used to have before 2012. At the same time, a protracted foreign policy dispute with Turkey seems to become the new trend. Not only the withdrawal of the Armenian-Turkish protocols, but also the contents of the government-supported declaration on the 100th anniversary of the genocide and the rapprochement with the ARF, increase the likelihood of such a development.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Armen Grigoryan is an Armenian political scientist. His research interests include post-communist transition, EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries, transatlantic relations, energy security, and conflict transformation.
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