The Armenian government and the radical opposition Armenian National Congress have declared that they will engage in dialogue as some of the ANC’s demands have been satisfied. This improves Armenia’s chances of escaping destabilization despite its difficult situation due to the global economic crisis, rising food prices and the risk of spillover from events in the Middle East. While the government is unlikely to meet remaining demands regarding early elections, the ANC hereby enhances its position as Armenia’s primary opposition movement and will likely secure a significant portion of the seats in parliament in the elections scheduled for next year.
BACKGROUND: The Armenian National Congress (ANC) was created in 2008 as a radical opposition movement seeking to revise the results of the presidential elections on February 18, 2008. It includes over 15 different political parties and organizations and is led by Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s first president. The members of ANC share the position that Ter-Petrosian, then one of the presidential candidates, had won the presidential election and that the ruling Republican Party’s supporters violated Armenian election law to declare its candidate, then Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, as the winner. The ANC’s demands also include a new and thorough investigation into the violent events of March 1, 2008. None of those guilty for killing ten people on that day have so far officially been prosecuted or punished so far. In particular, the ANC claims that Sargsyan and former president Robert Kocharian are responsible for the bloodshed.
The ANC has further demanded that those of its supporters who were detained after the events of March 1 and sentenced to different terms in prison, which ANC considers to be political prisoners, are released. Finally, the ANC has continuously criticized the government for the failures of its economic and social policies. The winter of 2010-2011 was an especially beneficial period to voice such criticism due to the consequences of the worldwide increase in food prices for Armenia’s poor, and allowed the ANC to increase its number of supporters.
During a rally on March 1 in memory of the tragic events three years earlier, the ANC presented its latest list of demands containing 15 points concerning both domestic and foreign policy issues with the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh in first place, and as usual demanding Sargsyan’s resignation and early parliamentary and presidential elections.
The government’s previous policy to ignore the ANC and its demands has failed. It is backtracking on its previous statements about turning the page on the March 2008 events and is gradually meeting several of the ANC’s demands. This primarily concerns the issue of political prisoners. Many of these were released after the amnesty declared on June 19, 2009, another six were released during 2010 and four were freed this year, leaving five people in detention of the several dozen arrested in March 2008. Also, the government has increased its efforts to curb the rise in food prices and to protect vulnerable citizens. On May 20, President Sargsyan declared a General Amnesty. It was confirmed by the National Assembly on May 26 and allows for the release of around 400 people, including the remaining arrested ANC supporters including two key persons, former MP Sasun Mikaelian and Nikol Pashinian, editor of the Haykakan Zhamanak daily.
IMPLICATIONS: The tense first months of 2011 seemed a suitable period for the ANC to push through its main demand, early elections. However, Ter-Petrosian preferred to quench this movement – at the expense of losing some of his supporters – because he feared that a destabilization of Armenia would have negative consequences for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As early as March 17, Ter-Petrosian stated that the fulfillment of three out of the 15 demands earlier declared would be enough to convince the ANC to engage in dialogue with the authorities. Thus, Ter- Petrosian is considerably softening his stance from his previous comparisons of Kocharian’s and Sargsyan’s governments with foreign aggressors who had usurped the country.
As a result of the amnesty declared by Sargsyan, all individuals the ANC declared political prisoners have been released. The increasing prudence of the conflicting sides may well allow Armenia to escape continued social unrest, and the ANC will most likely enter parliament as a result of regular elections in a year, although it still demands that these elections be held earlier. While this will hold negative consequences for other opposition parties, who will likely lose both voters and seats in parliament, the possibility of a dialogue between the authorities and the movement of Ter-Petrosian is welcomed by the West, including the U.S. and the EU.
Among those expressing satisfaction with the release of political prisoners, sometimes termed prisoners of conscience, were the President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the co-rapporteurs for Armenia of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) John Prescott and Alex Fischer, and the U.S. State Department. They all welcomed the possibility of such a dialogue as a major improvement of democracy in Armenia.
It is rumored that the U.S. embassy played an active role in engaging the two sides in talks, and that the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch acted as a mediator between the authorities and the ANC during previous months. The authorities and the ANC both deny these rumors.
On May 31, at the first rally after the ANC’s three demands were fulfilled, ANC leaders repeated that holding early elections is the only remaining issue to be discussed with the authorities. A special ANC delegation of five people was said to be organized for these talks. The authorities nevertheless made it clear that these demands would not be fulfilled and that there is no basis to hold early elections. Instead, the authorities are seeking to buy time as they seemingly have no intention to commence negotiations soon. Instead, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia has declared its readiness to present the ANC’s demands in the existing parliament.
In addition to events across the Middle East this spring and hardships caused by the inefficient economy, Ter-Petrosian has attributed the recent changes in government policy to a changing security context connected to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Quoting the latest statement of the leaders of the Minsk group co-chairs on May 26, Ter-Petrosian expressed the opinion that the status-quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is preferential to both Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, can no longer be maintained. Hence, major changes are expected in the region, which makes the Armenian authorities even more concerned, according to the ANC leader.
CONCLUSIONS: Under Ter-Petrosian’s leadership, the ANC has enhanced its position as the most powerful opposition force of Armenia. After three years of struggle, it was able to have all its jailed supporters released and forced the authorities to restore an inquiry into the tragic events of March 1, 2008. Though it is unlikely that it can force the authorities to hold early elections, the ANC is likely to become the strongest opposition force in the next parliament.AUTHOR’S BIO. Haroutiun Khachatrian is an analyst on political and economic problems living in Yerevan, Armenia.