Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Armenian Battle of the Weak
This month's battle between the opposition and the governing coalition in Armenia has been compared to events last November in Georgia, which led to the downfall of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
It's understandable that parallels should be drawn with Georgia's "rose revolution": the two countries are neighbours, they share a similar post-Soviet legacy, and in both cases the opposition employed the same methods to rock the government boat - rallies, marches and demands for the president to step down.
Yet, despite many similarities with Georgia, the Armenian situation is actually very different.
What they have in common relates mainly to the nature of their ruling regimes. As in most post-Soviet societies, the leadership is determined by a kind of social compact between a variety of elite groups. In these poor countries lacking in democratic traditions, the elites - political, business (very often criminalised) and, in the case of Armenia, the military - have created a system of political-economic groupings.
The feuding between these groups replaces the more conventional politics seen in other countries.
Ordinary people play little part in Armenian politics, except during elections - but even then the authorities find ways of manipulating the vote. As a result, it becomes virtually impossible for power to shift outside the existing political establishment. This creates tensions which can only be relieved through external pressure on the authorities, in other words from the streets. Those groups which are not part of the system of power, or have been expelled from it, have no incentive to wait for the next round of elections.
So far, Georgia and Armenia look very similar. But the differences between them begin to be apparent when one looks at the very different outcomes of the protests.
The Shevardnadze regime was so weak that its police force would not have obeyed orders to break up the demonstrations. In Armenia, by contrast, the alliance of convenience between army generals, business barons and regional leaders was sufficiently strong for them to that feel their interests would be threatened if Robert Kocharian, re-elected as president a year ago, were to be overthrown.
Moreover, Armenia does not have a united opposition. One wing of the opposition is formally headed by Stepan Demirchian, but he is such a weak politician that his movement really has several leaders.
Another wing is led by Artashes Gegamian, a former mayor of Yerevan and an accomplished orator who can impress a crowd, but has the reputation of being an opportunist.
The leaders of the other parties and groups have no presidential ambitions, but have not been able to unite with the more powerful opposition factions.
Armenia's divided opposition forces have very different ideas about how they would share out positions if they ever came to power. Lacking a single leader, they have also signally failed to demonstrate unity to the population at large. Basically their slogan has been, "Kocharian must go! And then let the people decide".
The first opposition rallies were staged in isolation from one another, and with a diversity of demands, all of which underlined the lack of an agreed programme. Opposition leaders therefore squandered their resources, opting instead for a blitzkrieg strategy of confrontation.
All the talk of an "Armenian rose revolution" would not have merited a second thought were this amorphous opposition facing a legitimate governing regime that could count on the support of a substantial section of society.
But in reality the government is beset by exactly the same problems that afflict the opposition. It is marked by decentralisation, incompetence at a strategic level, a tendency to overestimate its own strength and, last but not least, an inability and lack of will to engage in dialogue and compromise.
On the one hand, the administration does not feel strong enough to become genuinely dictatorial, while on the other, it knows it is estranged from society and cannot call on public support. In Georgia a strong opposition was fighting a power vacuum at the centre. In Armenia a weak opposition is fighting a weak government.
On the night of April 12-13, dozens of opposition demonstrators were hurt when police broke up a rally outside the parliament building. The brutality could have been anticipated. In a country ruled by elite groups, decisions at times of crisis are taken at a very low level by small groups, and the system begins to act aggressively.
All this - especially the aggressive stance - shows up the weakness of the authorities. The break-up of the rally, the official statements that the demonstrators were - at 2am - obstructing the work of parliament, that policemen had "not noticed" that the men whose cameras they were breaking were journalists - all this was no less a sign of helplessness than the opposition's idea of marching on parliament in the first place.
One result of the aggressive action taken by the Armenian leadership is that the public now understands how weak the regime is. That means society will continue to generate opposition groupings.
The demonstrations will continue, but the opposition will remain weak and disorganised as long as it remains in the phase of "negative identity" - in other words, as long as its only unifying idea is changing the regime and nothing more.
The government, too, will only get weaker as long as it equates political strength with the capacity to bash opposition demonstrators over the head with truncheons and put up roadblocks around Yerevan to stop people from the provinces attending demonstrations.
It is not so important who wins in this confrontation, or when that happens. At present there is a stalemate in which both sides reject dialogue, compromise is impossible, and - in line with Armenian political tradition - no one ever admits they have lost an election or a political fight. Meanwhile, the political system as a whole is losing yet more legitimacy.
Armenia has declared it wants to become part of Europe, but the latest events suggest that it is actually joining Latin America. This might be seen as a success: politically speaking, other post-Soviet states are on the same level as some of the worst African countries.
But that is little consolation for Armenia's political culture - the country is a long way off having a real political opposition that wants to devise real policies and that is based on genuine party structures and the positive support of broad sections of society.
When that eventually comes about, it will be impossible for the police to break up demonstrations because hundreds, rather than tens, of thousands of people will take part - people who know what they want to happen after the resignation of the president, not just before it. In fact, there will be no need for demonstrations at all because it will be a different kind of opposition, one that the authorities have to compromise and share influence with, as happens in many Latin American countries.
Armenia still has a long way to go before that happens. For the moment it faces the prospect of a long stalemate between a weak opposition and weak government, where it does not matter who emerges as victor.
Alexander Iskandarian is pro-rector of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan.
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