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Armenia: Opposition Sets Talks Terms

Two months after Yerevan bloodshed, Armenian opposition lays out conditions for dialogue.
Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian was met by hundreds of his supporters with applause and shouts of “Levon – president”, outside the government building where the Armenian opposition held a congress on May 2.

Some made the comparison with Ter-Petrosian’s return to Yerevan after six months in prison in Moscow in 1989, following his arrest as a nationalist dissident leader.

The meeting was a chance for Ter-Petrosian, who has been restricted from appearing in public since the March 1 violence in Yerevan, in which ten people died, to address his supporters and set out his strategy.

The congress, which unites 23 parties under the name Movement Heralding National Awakening, opened with a minute’s silence for those who died on March 1.

Ter-Petrosian called the events of that day a “massacre” and accused the former president Robert Kocharian of responsibility. He went on to say that the incoming president Serzh Sarkisian – whose legitimacy the opposition disputes – should have stopped the killings, but his level of culpability will depend on whether he sanctions an unbiased investigation into the March 1 bloodshed.

“There is no more convenient and useful way to prove his innocence than to agree to holding an international independent investigation,” said Ter-Petrosian

The former president proposed that a new “Armenian National Congress” should be formed, which would develop into a party that could play a “decisive role” in Armenian politics and put forward candidates in elections.

“It is quite possible that in the future this ‘congress’ will turn into a centrist party with a strong structure,” he said.

Some analysts are sceptical, however, about how feasible it is for the opposition to unite.

“It looks as though he is just playing for time and this is just a step to keep his supporters in the game,” said political analyst Eduard Antinian. “I am sure that at least two key parties of the 20 that are forming the movement – the Heritage and Social Democratic parties – will definitely not become centrist.”

Vardan Khachatrian, a Heritage member of parliament, the only opposition party represented there, was cautious about the idea of a united party.

“Further events will make things clear,” said Khachatrian. “At the moment, we are standing alongside the national movement but we simply see no need in a merger. Today it’s more important for us to be in dialogue on equal terms.”

The key question currently in Armenia is whether a dialogue is possible between the opposition, led by Ter-Petrosian and the new administration of Serzh Sarkisian, and on what terms.

“If no dialogue between the authorities and the opposition takes place in the next six months, then the parliamentary opposition will collapse,” said former presidential candidate Arman Melikian.

Ter-Petrosian said that he does not recognise the “legitimacy of the administration that has seized power” but agrees that they should be engaged.

His main demand is that the government carries out a resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, on April 17, which calls for an immediate “independent, transparent and credible inquiry into the events of 1 March and the circumstances that led to them, including the alleged excessive use of force by the police and violence by the protesters”.

It also demanded that people in custody on “seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges” should be released and amendments to legislation restricting public meetings should be revoked.

The resolution warns that if these changes are not carried out, “the credibility of Armenia as a member of the Council of Europe is put into doubt” and the Armenian delegation risks losing its voting rights in the parliamentary assembly.

The authorities called the resolution “tough” and Tigran Torosian, speaker of the Armenian parliament, said it “does not fully correspond to the picture of the events” that took place.

US-born former foreign minister Raffi Hovhannissian, leader of Heritage, has called for a dialogue between government and opposition on the basis of the resolution.

“The country is in a state of crisis and I see the way out from it as being real, radical and genuine reforms, which are possible through dialogue,” said Hovhannissian.

In the meantime, a commission was formed in parliament to study the Council of Europe resolution, of which Hovhannissian is not a member.

“This is one more step designed to isolate the opposition,” said Heritage member Anahit Bakhshian. She said that Hovhannissian is currently out of the country and that the commission will not accept other members of his party.

“The commission includes people who have damaged and compromised our country by their actions and incorrect decisions,” complained Bakhshian, naming Grigor Amalian and Aleksan Harutiunian, two unpopular figures at the head of state television. “Entrusting the demands of the resolution to this commission is like entrusting wolves with lambs.”

Some analysts say that dialogue may be impossible, especially as, according to the prosecutor’s office, 58 opposition activists are still in jail.

“This is a vicious circle as the authorities won’t release the prisoners so easily as many of them have criminal charges laid against them and in that case the former president will not engage in dialogue,” said political analyst Levon Shirinian.

Both sides are very suspicious of the other. Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesman for the governing Republican Party, accused the opposition of bad faith, saying, “The leaders of the opposition are presenting ultimatums in stead of dialogue.”

Gayane Abrahamian is a reporter for in Yerevan