After years of acrimony, the Armenian government and the country’s largest opposition group sat down recently to open a political dialogue. Some analysts in Yerevan believe the discussions stem from a government desire to minimize distractions as it considers recent Russian proposals to resolve the 23-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Just last month, the government backed away from earlier suggestions that it would meet with representatives of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (ANC). “Ultimatums are unacceptable, and addressing each other with ultimatums is a behavior that leads nowhere,” President Serzh Sargsyan asserted in a June 17 statement.
Presidential spokesperson Armen Arzumanian surprised many Armenians on July 9 when he announced that the governing coalition, in fact, had formed a working group to meet with ANC representatives. The closed-door talks on July 18 went on for nearly two hours at Yerevan’s downtown Erebuni Plaza Hotel. After wrapping up the meeting, both sides pledged to continue discussions on “a wide range of issues.” A date for their next meeting has not yet been set.
“The main goal is to pass from absolute confrontation to more cooperative work, and this does not at all mean that political disagreements between us will be smoothed away,” the head of the government’s delegation, Republican Party of Armenia member David Harutiunian, told journalists. “However, such a platform will enable us to hear each other’s opinion.”
The ANC delegation echoed that position. “We have our solution [to the standoff with the government] -- that is, presidential and parliamentary elections,” said ANC coordinator Levon Zurabian. “But at the same time, we have agreed that both parties have equal rights, and [the government] also can propose their solutions.”
Independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian sees more than a desire for cooperation as the motivation behind the government’s about-face on the talks. As elsewhere in the Caucasus, July is tends to be quiet time for politics, he noted. “The prompt response by Serzh Sargsyan saying he is ready to speed up the process made me think that he has serious problems on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh and has to come to terms with Levon Ter-Petrosian,” Bozoian reasoned. “Only one factor can be present here; I suppose it is the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
After lackluster round of Karabakh peace talks on June 24 in the Russian city of Kazan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Yerevan on July 8 with fresh proposals for a political settlement. The Armenian government’s about-face on talks with the opposition came a day later.
Lavrov shuttled off to Baku the same day, and then, on July 11, he visited Washington, DC. Yerevan has not yet made an official statement concerning the new Russian proposals, but Azerbaijan reportedly has provided a written response. Details of that response, however, have not been made public.
Asked whether Karabakh could have influenced the Armenian government’s decision to engage the opposition, governing Republican Party MP Hovhannes Sahakian conceded that "[f]oreign policy dictates domestic policy.” At the same time, Sahakian underlined that “we cannot say that, following the Kazan meeting, the authorities have weakened their position and that is why they agreed to meet with the opposition.”
Armenian Center for Political and International Studies political analyst Ruben Mehrabian believes that the Karabakh conflict is one of the “reasons” for the dialogue, but added that public pressure may also have played a role. The government, mindful of the Arab Spring example, could not “but pay attention to the voice of society,” which is expressing increasing anger about unemployment and labor migration, among other topics, Mehrabian claimed. He termed the dialogue “a manifestation of rationality” by both government and opposition.
Which side will emerge from the talks as the perceived “winner” is anyone’s guess. Bozoian contends that the government’s decision to start negotiations strengthened the ANC’s position, but ANC coordinator Zurabian noted that no concrete proposal from the government yet has been put on the negotiating table.
Both Mehrabian and Bozoian nonetheless predict that change – in whatever form -- is in the wind. “[T]his will happen despite the hot weather and the perception that summer is a dead season in terms of politics,” concluded Mehrabian.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.