Armenia faces a potential governmental crisis after the leader of one of the three parties in the governing coalition attacked his partners and President Robert Kocharian, accusing them of undermining the state's best interests. The controversy underscores the high level of political tension that lingers within Armenia's political establishment, mainly connected to the conduct of parliamentary elections in 2003.
Coalition controversy was sparked by an emotional speech February 6 by Hrant Markarian, a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), or Dashnaktsutiun. Speaking during a party general assembly, Markarian assailed his party's nominal coalition allies for engaging in massive vote fraud to maintain power in the May 2003 parliamentary vote. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Though now in the governing coalition, Markarian characterized the ARF as a victim of vote rigging. He charged that his party was "stabbed in the back" by other pro-Kocharian forces who resorted to vote buying and demagoguery to win a parliamentary majority. "Our indignation was great because we lost another unique opportunity to bring the country to its senses," he said. "The vote irregularities were severe indeed."
The chief targets of Markarian's criticism were the other two coalition members the Republican Party (HHK) led by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian (no relation to Hrant), and Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) Party. Both parties received much higher vote totals in the election than did the ARF. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his speech, repeatedly interrupted by rapturous applause from delegates, Markarian also expressed dissatisfaction with the Kocharian administration's record, pointing to rampant corruption and the "deepening social polarization" of Armenia's population. He went on to accuse Kocharian of having "tolerated the triumph of corruption and injustice," adding that the president lacked the will to rein in business tycoons and "other apolitical elements."
Neither HHK nor Orinats Yerkir has so far officially responded to the allegations, saying that they will wait until the ARF congress is over. The gathering was still going on as of February 13. But their leaders could barely contain their anger; HHK parliamentary leader Galust Sahakian rejected the claims as "unfounded," going on to warn that the ARF could face retaliation.
"If it turns out that the accusations contained in Hrant Markarian's speech are the official opinion of Dashnaktsutiun, then that opinion could lead to quite serious consequences," he warned in a newspaper interview.
Kocharian's reaction to the allegations was also reportedly highly critical, although the president has staked out a cautious public stance. The Armenian leader is seen as keen to preserve the country's first-ever coalition cabinet in the hopes that it will lend his controversy-ridden second term in office greater legitimacy.
Kocharian courteously denied the claims. "One has to be cautious, especially when touching upon extremely sensitive issues," his spokesman, Ashot Kocharian, said. "The existence of corruption, social problems and difficulties must not be blamed on big business."
The presidential press secretary distanced the administration from Markarian's position on several regional issues. For instance, Kocharian's aide made it clear that official Yerevan does not subscribe to the ARF leader's calls for neighboring Georgia to grant autonomous status to its Armenian-populated Javakheti region.
He also question Markarian's strong objections to a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Markarian said his party remains opposed to any economic ties between the two estranged nations until Turkey recognizes the 1915 killings of some 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. He denounced those Armenian officials and businessmen who look forward to Ankara's possible reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border for travel and commerce. (Turkey imposed a blockade in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.)
Kocharian and most Armenian political groups, including the HHK and Orinats Yerkir, do not view Turkish recognition of the genocide as a precondition for normalizing bilateral ties. Nor do they demand self-rule for the Javakheti Armenians. Instead, they are encouraging Georgia to address the impoverished region's socio-economic woes.
The cautious tone of Kocharian's reaction indicates that he is reluctant to turn against one of the country's oldest parties and one of his chief pillars of political support during his presidency.
Founded in the late 19th century to fight for self-rule in Armenian-populated areas of the Russian and Ottoman empires, Dashnaktsutiun has espoused traditional Armenian nationalism that presupposes a firm stand on Turkey and geopolitical reliance on Russia. The unusually secretive party, which has chapters in major Armenian expatriate communities around the world, ruled a short-lived independent Armenian republic in 1918-1921 until its conquest by Bolshevik Russia.
The ARF reestablished itself in Armenia in 1990, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet empire. During the early 1990s, the ARF found itself at loggerheads with the country's first post-Communist government, which sought to implement policies that were too liberal and Western-oriented for Dashnak leadership's tastes. That government, headed by then President Levon Ter-Petrosian, outlawed the party on terrorism charges in 1994. The ban was lifted shortly after Ter-Petrosian was forced to quit in February 1998 by his key ministers, including then Prime Minister Kocharian.
Dashnaktsutiun has since been a staunch ally of Kocharian. But having only three ministerial posts and 11 seats in Armenia's 131-member parliament, it is far from enjoying the kind of political clout it had hoped for. Markarian's speech showed the extent of the ARF's frustration. "We are unjustly held responsible for those [government policy] areas with which we have nothing to do both directly and indirectly," he complained.
Members of the HHK scoff at the notion that Dashnaktsutiun should not be held responsible for some governing-coalition decisions. They point out that the terms of the June 2003 power-sharing agreement make coalition members equally responsible for governmental policies. "You can't be half-responsible for something," said another HHK leader, Tigran Torosian.
Kocharian, meanwhile, is playing down the significance of the latest government infighting. The coalition is able to "continue its effective work," his spokesman said. Armenia's influential Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has likewise described intra-coalition relations as "normal."
Most local observers believe that for all its tough talk, the Dashnaktsutiun leaders are unlikely to forego their presence in government and various perks that come with it. Even more unlikely is the possibility that the ARF would ally itself with parties now in opposition. Indeed, opposition leaders have denounced the ARF for its refusal to admit that Kocharian's disputed reelection in 2003 was also fraudulent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As one of the opposition leaders, Albert Bazeyan, put it, "Dashnaktsutiun also was responsible for those falsifications and can not dodge the responsibility."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.