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Egypt-Style Protest Warning in Armenia

Rather than await elections, opposition parties want mass protests against government.
By Armen Poghosyan
  • Rally in Yerevan on March 1, commemorating those killed in mass protests three years ago. (Photo: Photolur agency)
    Rally in Yerevan on March 1, commemorating those killed in mass protests three years ago. (Photo: Photolur agency)
  • Candlelit vigil to remember the dead. (Photo: Photolur agency)
    Candlelit vigil to remember the dead. (Photo: Photolur agency)

Opposition parties in Armenia are calling on the prime minister to step down ahead of fresh elections, and are threatening mass protests like those that have overthrown governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Experts predict a growing wave of protest, and point to splits within the ruling coalition that could weaken the government’s response to trouble.

Speaking on March 1, the third anniversary of the suppression of mass protests, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, head of the opposition Armenian National Congress, ANC, presented a list of 15 demands to the government.

Addressing a crowd estimated at 10,000 by police and 50,000 by organisers, Ter-Petrosyan called for the removal of Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, the prosecutor general, the heads of the National Security Service and the police force, the chairman of the Central Bank, the mayor of Yerevan and a number of other officials.

By March 15, he said, the authorities must free all “prisoners convicted for their political views and activities”, set up a commission to investigate events three years ago when ten people died as police broke up demonstrations, and allow the opposition television station A1+ back onto the airwaves.

Finally, he demanded action to improve the standard of living in Armenia.

The demands were so extreme, and so unlikely to be met, that some analysts read them as a demand for the government to be overthrown. Ter-Petrosyan issued a similar call after the presidential election of February 2008 which led to the mass protests.

ANC leaders acknowledge that they are inspired by the popular uprisings in the Middle East.

On February 25, Levon Zurabyan, coordinator of the ANC’s central office, said political tensions were growing more acute as living standards dropped.

“This is of particular significance seen against the backdrop of the revolutions the world has been witnessing. We have witnessed how these events have created a new context for international affairs, and how the international community is at last making a correct assessment of the brutalities that governments have committed against their own peoples,” he said. “Sadly, there was no such unity on March 1, 2008. The world was asleep, and opted to close its eyes to events in little Armenia.”

Manvel Sargsyan, a senior analyst with the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, agreed that the upsurge in opposition activity had been inspired by the Middle Eastern protests.

“I don’t think this current political activity has to do with the parliamentary election that’s due in May 2012; it has to do with the situation now. Both political forces and the authorities are being driven by not by elections, but by what’s going on in the Arab world,” he said. “Elections are a long way off. People are thinking about now.”

Manvel Sargsyan suggested that Armenia’s economic decline since the onset of the global financial crisis could play into the hands of the opposition.

The central bank if forecasting inflation of at least nine per cent in first half of this year, while independent economists say it could be as high as 20 per cent.

The Armenian government appears in no mood to make concessions.

“The ruling coalition is open to dialogue, but it won’t accept an ultimatum,” Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesman for the ruling Republican Party, said the day after Ter-Petrosyan laid out his 15 demands. The Republican Party’s two coalition allies also rejected the demands.

Armenia’s leadership has plenty of experience of staving off popular insurrection. When a series of revolutions toppled governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005, protests also took place in Armenia, but the authorities survived. In the 2008 presidential election, President Robert Kocharyan managed to hand over power to Serzh Sargsyan, and the ruling elite remained in power.

All is not well within the coalition, however. Armenian media report that the two largest members – Kocharyan’s Prosperous Armenia and Sargsyan’s Republican Party – had disagreed over how they would share power after a future election, raising questions about whether they would unite behind President Sargsyan.

On February 17, they papered over the differences and released a statement saying they did not intend to attack one another in the 2012 parliamentary election, and would field a single candidate for the next presidential election.

Some analysts are questioning how firm President Sargsyan’s grip on power is if he is forced to demand this kind of public declaration of loyalty, with two years still to run before he seeks re-election.

However, they point out that the opposition is not united, either, and the ANC is not the only political movement mobilising against the government.

The two opposition parties that hold seats in parliament have become more vocal in their criticism of the ruling administration.

On February 18, the day after the ruling coalition issued its declaration of unity, the opposition Dashnaksutyun party announced it would be fighting for a fair election to prevent the authorities “replicating themselves”.

Dashnaksutyun member Hrant Margaryan said that the coalition statement indicated that “the authorities are creating a dictatorship, totalitarianism, from which neither our people nor our political system will benefit,”

The Heritage Party’s leader Raffi Hovhannisyan condemned the coalition agreement as “illegal” because it amounted to President Sargsyan putting his name forward for re-election before he was entitled to, and “also says to society ‘the state is me’; ‘I am more important than everyone else’.”

Heritage Party members walked out of parliament and are due to discuss whether to resign their seats.

However, the prospects of the three opposition forces uniting are slim, as they are divided by their different pasts – Ter-Petrosyan was president until 1998, while Dashnaksutyun was part of the ruling coalition until last year.

Insults are already flying. The ANC’s Zurabyan accused Dashnaksutyun of having enjoyed the benefits of being aligned with the regime, and Armen Rustamyan of Dashnaksutyun replied in kind, saying that electoral fraud started when Ter-Petrosyan was president.

Despite opposition squabbling, many analysts agree that the mood of protest is likely to rise.

“Everything has changed – the situation in the country, and the position of society,” Manvel Sargsyan said. “A group of people has emerged who are not afraid. I even get the impression that they’d be prepared to take up arms. That isn’t a feeling I had a few years ago.”

Armen Poghosyan is a freelance journalist in Yerevan.