Tens of thousands of Armenian citizens congregated in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on October 24, to hear the three opposition parties present what some hoped would have been a unified platform for fundamental, structural, and institutional reforms with a clearly articulated road map to achieve them. Instead they heard contradictory positions and inconsistent messages.
The Armenian National Congress (ANC), the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and the Heritage Party, come to be known as the triumvirate, had embarked on a nationwide tour of rallies to protest proposed constitutional amendments to change the country’s political system from a presidential to a parliamentary one and to shore up support for their package of reforms. Many in the country view the move for constitutional reform as an attempt by President Serzh Sargsyan to prolong his grip on power. Under the current constitution, Sargsyan would not be allowed to run for a third term in office, but with a parliamentary system, if the Republican Party was able to secure a majority in parliament during the next parliamentary elections, it would guarantee the office of Prime Minister for Sargsyan.
The first round of the tour culminated with a large protest demonstration on October 10 in Yerevan. At that demonstration, with almost 20,000 participants, the leaders of the opposition parties gave speeches that left many wondering if they could sustain a movement that would ensure regime change. While the speeches may have flatlined, the large turnout prompted President Serzh Sargsyan to postpone delivering his final evaluation of the proposed constitutional amendments until February-March 2015. This appears to be a tactic to prolong the ‘discussion’ of a new political system for the country and as a result ensure that the strength of the protest movement slowly dwindles.
While it is no secret that in the absence of political maturity and acumen, in the absence of a political and social value system, calls for immediate regime change may hold currency with the aggrieved masses, but one would be hard pressed to predict what the result will be.
The rally on October 24, possibly the largest since the 2008 protests and clashes following the flawed presidential elections which left 10 people dead, illustrated that neither the political parties nor their constituencies understand the objective, construct and actual function of the triumvirate. Additionally, they failed to show the citizenry that they were able to agree on policies that were mutually agreeable and acceptable. In other words, if their objective is to bring fundamental change, they need to agree on the things they actually can agree on, present them in a cohesive and unified voice, and the rest should be left for consultation and negotiation at a later date.
It is important to understand, and unfortunately most didn’t, that these three very different political forces have their own vision and agenda for the country – ideology for the most part is absent. Therefore, their decision to join forces didn’t necessarily stem from a unified vision but rather it was motivated by their desire to dismantle the stranglehold that the Republican Party has on the country’s levers of power and governance.
The triumvirate’s position on foreign policy, for example, is radically different from one another. This was glaringly apparent when Armenia’s first President Levon Ter Petrosyan announced during the demonstration that Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union was irreversible and a reality that the country must reconcile itself with while leader of the Heritage Party Raffi Hovhannisian didn’t mince his words when he said that they were diametrically opposed to it.
In his speech, Ter Petrosyan declared, “Is it difficult for some people to understand that if Armenia suffered a tenth of the losses that Ukraine suffered, it would mean that Armenia would be simply wiped off the world map. Even the West understood Armenia’s decision [to join the Eurasian Economic Union – editor]. Meanwhile, a handful of people here do not want to reconcile themselves with this reality and they attempted to artificially instil anti-Russian sentiments in our country, without thinking about the consequences and without understanding that there is no soil for that in our country.” He went on to say that Armenia should try and benefit from the Eurasian Economic Union, which he compared to the European Union, and establish a prosperous country.
Immediately following his speech, it was Raffi Hovhannisian turn at the podium. “We had agreed that we weren’t going to speak about this issue [Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union – editor], but because Levon Ter Petrosyan did, so now I must respond,” Hovhannisian said and reiterated that his party is opposed to Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and that Serzh Sargsyan “as an illegitimate official, with his very signature is leading Armenia in the wrong direction.” He went on to say that no one should interpret this statement as being anti-Russian, in a response to Ter Petrosyan’s allegations of fostering anti-Russian atmosphere in the country. He did stress that a sovereign, independent, and democratic Armenia must develop relations equally with all global players. Hovannisian also called for a sit-in to begin immediately following the demonstration.
However, when leader of the Prosperous Armenia party Gagik Tsarukyan spoke, he said there would be no such thing. Tsarukyan underscored that the three opposition parties had to work together, that there could be no actions undertaken independent from one another and that their mission was to finish what they had begun. “And if the authorities continue to ignore and deny the justified demands of the nationwide movement, then we, the three political forces, along with other similar-minded political powers and with an even wider united popular movement, with hundreds of thousands standing in the streets and in the squares, will impose regime change, the creation of a new authority and snap elections. We are obligated to provide structural and organizational solutions to this strong, developing movement,” Tsarukyan said, except he didn’t outline what those solutions were. He also called on the Diaspora to join them to break the political monopoly and create a sustainable future for the country.
Tsarukyan’s tone was more conciliatory than Levon Ter Petrosyan’s, who in his speech earlier had referred to those who opposed the opposition as a marginal, ineffective group of people who by opposing them were supporting the ruling regime. He used a quote, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to underscore his point. His statement was reminiscent of his earlier position of “if you are not with us, then you are against us.” The country’s first president does not seem to understand that this is not how you build consensus in society. One interesting development, however is that this was the first time that Ter Petrosyan yielded the role of main speaker to someone else; since the very first days of independence, any time that Ter Petrosyan appeared at a rally, the role of main speaker was always reserved for him.
Tens of thousands of people had come to the square in search of hope. Whether they received an inkling of hope after they returned to their homes and lives remains to be seen. In a distorted political environment, the fact that these political parties were able to come together in an attempt to push through reforms or with the intention of eventually toppling this government is a relatively new phenomenon in Armenia. It remains to be seen if the ordinary citizen who sees him or herself as part of this nationwide movement, will continue to trust the opposition forces who don’t want to expose all their tactical cards. Trust therefore is paramount in this equation and while hope may be the currency the opposition is banking on, it is not a plan. After October 24, it is clear that the opposition has a long way to go before it can deliver on any of its promises.