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ARMENIA: Sargsyan government weathers March storms

Monday, October 6 2008

EVENT: The monitoring committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe considered developments in Armenia on October 3.

SIGNIFICANCE: President Serzh Sargsyan has weathered the international and national storm triggered by the heavy-handed suppression of opposition protests following the February 2008 elections. The government is showing increasing confidence in making political appointments, which could eventually lead to the return of former President Robert Kocharian to power.

ANALYSIS: The February elections weakened the ruling regime, which is epitomised by the tandem of President Serzh Sargsyan and his predecessor Robert Kocharian. By September, it had to a large degree consolidated its power, though the violent suppression of opposition protests in March damaged Armenia's international image. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued a resolution blaming key state institutions for failing to comply with democratic standards, the rule of law and human rights. However, a subsequent PACE resolution was milder and postponed suspending Armenia's voting rights until January.

Opposition momentum. The smooth transfer of power between Kocharian and Sargsyan, a former prime minister, was called into question when Levon Ter-Petrosian, the first president of independent Armenia, surprised the ruling elite with his decision to run for the presidency. In an election campaign marked by mutual accusations over past ills and the virtual absence of serious debate on the country's future, Ter-Petrosian managed to rally significant support from those discontented with persistent corruption, the tainted political process, inequitable economic transformation and government's lack of accountability and transparency. Following elections marked by numerous violations, the opposition organised ten days of protests; the degree of mobilisation surprised the ruling elite. This ended on March 1-2, when violent clashes between the police and thousands of supporters left at least ten dead. The government imposed a 20-day emergency, banned rallies and curtailed media freedoms (see ARMENIA: Regime will use force to retain power - March 27, 2008).

Several hundred opposition supporters were detained, of whom 76 were still in detention at the end of September. The opposition was in effect denied the right of assembly until September 15, when the Yerevan mayor's office authorised a rally. In his address, Ter-Petrosian pointed to internal tensions within the coalition on policy towards Turkey and personnel changes. He also said that the Russian-Georgian war in August had shown that Armenia was as vulnerable as ever to external pressures. Yet the number attending the rally was lower than generally expected, suggesting that the opposition is losing momentum. It was also defeated in several districts in the September municipal elections.

Parliamentary leadership. On September 29, the National Assembly elected as speaker Hovik Abrahamian, the chief of the presidential staff and a close ally of Kocharian and Sargsyan. He replaced Tigran Torosian, parliamentary speaker since 2006:

Former speaker. Torosian had dismissed rumours of his replacement in recent months and was said to have repeatedly refused to step down voluntarily despite being offered senior government positions. He finally tendered his resignation on September 16, citing insurmountable differences with the parliament majority on domestic issues and behind-the-scene intrigues. Torosian was seen as a relatively independent lawmaker, untainted by connections to oligarchs.
New speaker. Abrahamian has served in the government since 2000, recently heading the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, which carries out some of the functions performed elsewhere by the interior ministry. He managed the ruling Republican Party (HHK) campaign for the 2007 parliamentary elections and Sargsyan's campaign in February 2008, leading to suspicions about the use of 'administrative resources'. Abrahamian's move to the highest parliamentary post was planned well in advance: he won a parliamentary by-election in August in a single-mandate constituency in Artashat, where his family owns several businesses. He also owns several residential buildings in the centre of Yerevan and property in the resort town of Tsakhkadzor.
Commission of inquiry. The government has set up a parliamentary inquiry into the March 1-2 events. There are serious doubts about the credibility of the commission and its yet-to-be-published findings. The opposition has refused to take part, concerned lest participation would be used to legitimise pro-regime findings. Commission chairman Samvel Nikoyan, a senior HHK member, has criticised the police for not cooperating with and even hindering the probe. The chief of police publicly objected to suggestions that officers involved should be investigated and possibly prosecuted for the use of lethal force.

Foreign policy. The conflict in Georgia in August complicated the economic and political situation and exposed Armenia's relative isolation. Over 70% of Armenia's foreign trade is conducted via Georgia, and any disruption is very costly. Should the economy suffer, the government may become under additional pressure from the population. At the same time, the West's weak reaction demonstrated to the Armenian leadership that it may resort to increasingly open authoritarian measures without fear, as the West continues to focus on developments in Georgia.

In order to mitigate the fallout, Armenia embarked on an unprecedented course of improving relations with Turkey (see ARMENIA/TURKEY: Opportunity opens for rapprochement - September 9, 2008). The Russian-Georgian war shifted the political landscape in the Caucasus and is prompting Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan -- three countries with long-standing disputes -- to try to settle their differences. With Georgia's energy transit credentials threatened, Armenia is being considered more actively as an alternative energy route for Turkey, as well as for potentially bringing Iran's gas to Europe.

The leadership believes its 'policy of complementarity' has paid off. Armenia will continue its strategic cooperation with Russia, 'good-neighbourly relations' with Georgia, cooperation with the EU and partnership with the United States and NATO. The 'frozen conflict' with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh will continue. Armenia will block any change in the mediation format, preventing Turkey from acquiring a more important role.

Outlook. Having weathered the worst wave of protests, the government now feels confident enough to appoint into the highest posts figures who clearly do not enjoy the confidence of the opposition. It continues to detain opposition supporters and keep close control of the media. At the same time, it has allowed some opposition rallies. These steps are designed to soften international criticism and preclude the country's political isolation. Throughout, the president has relied on Russia's support and CIS states' silent acquiescence in its handling of the opposition.

The regime is now likely to continue consolidating its power, assisted by the opposition's loss of momentum and the relatively weak international reaction to the March crackdown. It has had ample time to correct some of its more authoritarian behaviour by releasing political prisoners. So far, it has chosen not to do so. Georgia has absorbed a large share of the limited diplomatic resources assigned to the region, and the government may have scored some foreign policy successes, such as normalising relations with Turkey.

The process may end with the return of Kocharian. In early September, rumours started circulating that the current government, which includes some members with no strong political affiliations (see ARMENIA: New government sets ambitious targets - May 6, 2008), may be a caretaker administration, to be replaced by a more strongly pro-HHK government headed by the former president. Kocharian recently said he had not decided to return to politics at this point, leaving open the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future.

CONCLUSION: With the opposition losing momentum, the government looks stronger despite signs of internal incoherence and a lack of public support. It has not displayed the political will to implement the far-reaching reforms outlined in its programme.