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Opposition Still Boycotting Armenian Parliament

President’s supporters appear unconcerned as two factions continue boycott in support of a referendum to oust him.
By Mariam Levina

As Armenia’s parliament opened for business on February 7, the opposition declared an extension of its now year-long boycott.


The two opposition factions, Justice and National Unity, first announced a walk-out in February last year after the National Assembly turned down a proposed change to the law that would have allowed a nationwide referendum to be held on Robert Kocharian’s presidency.


Using a confidence referendum as a tool to oust the president has long been a goal of the opposition alliance, which controls just 24 of the 131 parliamentary seats. The opposition claims that Kocharian won the 2003 presidential election, and his supporters swept the board in a parliamentary poll the same year, only by fixing the results.


Viktor Dallakian, a member of the Justice group, told IWPR that the opposition would not back down since the Armenian supreme court ruling had ruled in favour of a referendum.


“Given that parliament was elected through rigging, our participation can have no real meaning,” he said. “But if people think they can exploit us as a mere decoration, to show that the Armenian parliament has an opposition, then they will not succeed.”


“There can be no talk of ending the boycott as long as the reasons for it are not removed,” said Stepan Demirchian, a leading opposition figure who heads Justice.


“To this day, those who falsified the presidential and parliamentary elections have not been punished. Neither have those who beat peaceful demonstrators in April last year. This clearly shows that it is the authorities who stand behind all the lawlessness.”


Demirchian said that his allies would still take part in vital debates, as they did when parliament was voting on whether to send a small contingent of troops to Iraq.


The opposition is prepared to debate matters such as constitutional issues, but more than 40 other bills, some of them authored by the opposition itself, may end up being ignored.


The pro-government speaker of parliament, Artur Bagdasarian, remained optimistic, calling 2005 a year of “parliamentary accord”.


But disagreement has already arisen even in those areas which all parties are in principle happy to debate.


Just before the spring session opened, Justice and National Unity made it clear they were prepared to debate a proposed set of constitutional reforms, but said they wanted to see changes to national and local government and the court system placed top of the agenda.


The ruling coalition saw this proviso as an ultimatum. “We don’t need any favours from them,” said Republican faction leader Galust Saakyan. “Constitutional reform is of national importance. The opposition must make up its own mind whether or not to take part.”


Demirchian defended the opposition’s stand, insisting there was no ultimatum.


He described the ruling coalition’s current plans for constitutional reform as worse than a package of proposals that was rejected in a 2003 referendum.


The parliamentary opposition shows no sign of letting up on its boycott of day-to-day legislative business.


But according to political analyst Aleksandr Iskandarian, head of the Caucasus Media Institute, the current opposition is so weak that “a fundamentally new movement must be established”.


Talks are now under way on a new opposition bloc that would bring together Armenia’s first post-Soviet foreign minister, Raffi Ovanesian, former premier Aram Sarkisian, and Ovannes Ovanesian, chairman of the Liberal Progressive party. Ovanesian says the idea is to create a pro-Western coalition.


For the established opposition, Demirchian says talk of new alliances is just hot air, and he denied that his colleagues are in disarray, saying, “the bloc has been and is functioning, and it is in a position to accomplish the tasks facing it”.


Aram Karapetian, leader of the New Times party, believes Armenia has neither an opposition nor a true ruling coalition, “There is a president who more or less carries out his obligations, and there are the people who live far away.


“Between them there’s a vacuum which so far no one has been able to fill - not the government and not the parliament.”


If Karapetian is right in suggesting the established political groupings – pro- and anti-president alike - are unresponsive to their electorate, few observers are predicting that this could lead to a popular uprising resulting in regime change of the kind seen in Georgia and more recently Ukraine.


“There is no revolutionary situation in Armenia and it is senseless to talk about it,” Mger Shakgeldian, the deputy chairman of the pro-government Country of Law (Orinats Erkir) party, told IWPR.


The leader of the pro-government faction Dashnaktsutyun, Levon Mkrtchian, said there could be “no velvet revolution in Armenia, because there aren’t the conditions for it”.


Mariam Levina is a journalist at the independent Arminfo agency.


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