After months of bickering, Armenia's two main opposition groups are cooperating on a fresh political offensive against President Robert Kocharian. The two parties have launched a boycott of parliament, aiming to force the government to hold a "referendum of confidence" in the president.
The Artarutiun (Justice) bloc of Stepan Demirchian and the National Unity Party led by Artashes Geghamian continue to accuse Kocharian of "usurping" power by rigging presidential and parliamentary elections last year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The two opposition leaders decided on the parliamentary boycott strategy after the Kocharian-controlled legislature cut off debate February 2 on proposed legal amendments that would have made a confidence referendum possible. The Justice bloc and National Unity control about two dozen seats in the 131-member National Assembly
Speaking at a February 3 news conference, Geghamian said that under existing political circumstances "the activity of the parliament cannot be considered legitimate." He added that the boycott would spark a "parliamentary crisis." Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Makarian dismissed talk of a crisis, saying the governing coalition in parliament remained sturdy. "If there are people who want to see their wishes as reality, then that's their problem," Makarian said.
Opposition leaders say they will strive to drum up public support for their cause, hoping popular pressure will force the government to relent on the referendum issue. But they have so far been vague about what concrete steps they will take beyond the parliamentary boycott. The hesitation in articulating a clear strategy reflects lingering differences and mutual mistrust that has plagued those in the anti-Kocharian camp. The lack of opposition cohesion has enabled the president to fend off all challenges to his seemingly iron grip on power. Not surprisingly, members of the Kocharian team appear untroubled by the rise of political tension.
The idea of holding a referendum of confidence was floated Armenia's Constitutional Court last April in the wake of the presidential election, which international observers found to be deeply flawed. At the time, the Constitutional Court, which has traditionally deferred to the executive branch, rejected an opposition appeal to invalidate the poll results. In raising the possibility of a referendum, however, the high court was widely seen as dealing a blow to the legitimacy of Kocharian's reelection. The court chairman, Gagik Harutiunian, subsequently came under fierce criticism from presidential aides and state-controlled media.
The referendum of confidence has since been the centerpiece of the opposition discourse. The issue was thrust into the limelight last October when, after opposition maneuvering, proposed amendments to Armenia's referendum law were included in the session's legislative agenda. The parliament leadership, however, vowed to prevent any debates on them, arguing that the Constitutional Court did not have authority to call elections, thus making its ruling non-binding.
The opposition has repeatedly claimed that Kocharian is opposed to the referendum because he worries that, in a fair vote, he would lose it. "So great is that fear that they thwarted the changes to the referendum law -- in blatant violation of National Assembly rules and the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia," Geghamian said.
"We will come back [to parliament] with the people and force them to fulfill the decision of the Constitutional Court," said Victor Dallakian, a senior Justice bloc lawmaker. He warned that if the opposition fails to bring about the vote "without upheavals," it will resort to "other ways" of political struggle. But precisely what the opposition plans to do remains unclear. "Details of our joint steps have not yet been discussed," another leading member of the Justice bloc, Albert Bazeyan, admitted on February 5.
"We will definitely try to always coordinate them. This might be joint meetings with the public and other political steps. Time will tell," Bazeyan told EurasiaNet.
Some opposition activists clearly favor a mass protest strategy, similar to that in neighboring Georgia which succeeded in forcing Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation last November. Bazeyan has for months pushed for a renewed campaign of anti-Kocharian street protests, and has tried to get his colleagues in the Justice bloc hierarchy to endorse protest tactics. But the bloc's leader, Demirchian, appears to favor a more cautious line.
It also remains to be seen how closely the Justice bloc and National Unity can cooperate. The two groups traded accusations of secret collaboration with the regime during last year's presidential race. Geghamian, for example, denounced Demirchian for not withdrawing from the March 5 run-off vote with Kocharian to protest the vote-rigging that occurred during the February 19 first round of voting. Geghamian finished third in the first round.
The two men were not on speaking terms for months and do not seem have fully overcome the rift. This might explain why Demirchian, who insists that he was the rightful winner of the presidential ballot, has ruled out any formal alliances with Geghamian's party. Geghamian, for his part, has spoken out against mounting acts of "civil disobedience." Massive anti-Kocharian demonstrations, he said, would only play into the regime's hands.
"It is impossible to bring about a referendum of confidence without powerful popular pressure," Bazeyan countered. But he was quick to downplay the differences, saying that they do not make an opposition consensus impossible.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.