Disillusioned with its “open dialogue” with the government, Armenia’s largest opposition coalition, the Armenian National Congress, is falling back on a familiar tactic -- taking to the streets. The question is: will ordinary Armenians follow?
The opposition-government dialogue commenced during the summer then hit a speed bump August 9, when opposition youth activists and Yerevan police clashed, resulting in the detention of one activist. Armenian National Congress (ANC) representatives have shunned meetings with government officials since August 26.
Calling on supporters to “show their strength,” ANC leaders are planning to gather on September 9 in Yerevan to demand the release of the jailed activist, 30-year-old Tigran Arakelian. They are also pressing for early presidential and parliamentary elections.
The ANC’s rejection of talks clearly has annoyed representatives of President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration. “It is not right to speak with ultimatums inside one’s own country; it will never end well,” huffed Hovhannes Sahakian, a MP for the governing Republican Party of Armenia.
“I don’t think the so-called dialogue, which aimed to solve a serious state problem, should’ve been stopped because of a certain Tigran Arakelian,” commented national police chief Alik Sargsian to the Armenian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on September 1. “If it had to be interrupted by Tigran Arakelian, then it’s very good it stopped; it should never have started. We don’t need such a dialogue.”
A substantial portion of opposition supporters were never enthusiastic about the discussions. Some voiced anger over the decision during the summer of ANC leader Levon Ter-Petrosian to engage the government, which he had previously denounced for various abuses of power. With the dialogue showing no signs of producing fast results, Ter-Petrosian may have opted out in order to prevent internal discontent within the ANC from growing.
Experts are sceptical about whether a return to street-protest tactics is a wise move for the ANC. Some observers say that after a three-year-plus run of rallies and constant conflict with the government over detentions and freedom of assembly issues, many Armenians are suffering from fatigue and just want to move forward. Economic factors, in particular rapid inflation and persistently high unemployment, have helped fuel political apathy, they add.
“[T]he time for street rallies and public demonstrations has passed,” said Regional Studies Center Director Richard Giragosian. “The people are expecting alternative policies and proposals, beyond simple calls for change. This is the real challenge, moving political conflict to a higher arena of fighting for policies, not personalities.”
Yervand Bozoyan, an independent analyst, said the ANC now stands at a political crossroads. “If the opposition does not change its tactics it will lose more and more supporters,” he said.
Bozoyan expects the ANC to embrace “different methods” in order to build support prior to parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 2012. But so far, ANC leaders have not given any indication that they will make a significant tactical shift. ANC spokesperson Arman Musinian indicated that coalition leaders will outline a short-term strategy at the September 9 rally, but he provided no specifics.
Armenia’s other major opposition force -- the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun – finds itself in a similar position to the ANC. As it prepares for the coming legislative election campaign, ARF leaders appear to be leaning heavily on staging “regime-change” rallies.
Continuing reliance on protest tactics stand to drive the opposition coalition in a radical direction, diminishing any chances for success in the upcoming parliamentary vote. According to sociologist Aharon Adibekian, “radical” opposition members are not happy with the ANC, but “whatever happens, they will participate in opposition rallies.”
“It would be an exaggeration,” Adibekian added, “to say that these would be nationwide rallies.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.