Post-March 1, Does Armenia Have an Agenda for Change?
Armenia will soon be called on to demonstrate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that it is ready to make a fresh start after the violence of March 1. The question is whether it will pass the test.
In an April 17 resolution, PACE outlined the changes it expects: the release of political prisoners, revocation of limitations on public rallies; start of an "open and serious dialogue" between political parties about reform; and an independent investigation into the events of March 1.
If the demands are not met by its June 23 session, PACE could opt to suspend Armenia's voting rights -- a move that would be an unwanted public humiliation for the new Sarkisian administration.
Within Armenia, two proposals under discussion in parliament are being closely watched to gauge the government's willingness to meet the PACE demands.
A so-called "Public Council" made up of pro-government, opposition and non-governmental organization representatives is the first. According to Sarkisian, the group is meant to serve as "the broadest forum for dialogue." The Council will function only as an advisory body.
But after a month of back-and-forth barbs, the talk about this discussion group has remained just that -- talk. Both sides blame the other for the delay.
"We won't get involved in a dialogue of any kind as long as there is a single political prisoner left in Armenia," Arman Musinian, spokesperson for ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, commented to EurasiaNet.
Ruling Republican Party of Armenia parliamentarian Hermine Naghdalian, a member of Armenia's delegation to PACE, counters that the opposition is simply not interested in a two-way conversation.
"The authorities do their best to enter into a dialogue and meet the [PACE] resolution requirements, but, obviously, the other side avoids it, and this turns into a monologue instead of being a dialogue," Naghdalian said.
Meanwhile, one incentive has been offered. Presidential advisor Garnik Isagulian, who is overseeing the campaign to set up the Public Council, tells EurasiaNet that Ter-Petrosian himself could serve as president of the Council if his opposition movement decided to take part.
"There will be nothing to hinder the former president from heading the council," said Isagulian.
But the offer means nothing to one prominent Ter-Petrosian supporter.
"If the council is created by the president, and it is under his control, then what else can one expect from it?" asked Karapet Rubinian, a former deputy parliamentary speaker who was recently released from prison. "It will be just another structure glorifying the president."
Instead, to promote dialogue, the opposition is calling for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. Neither Sarkisian nor the current legislature, elected in May 2007, reflect the public's wishes, they say. Only one opposition party, the Heritage Party, currently holds seats in the 131-member body.
Republican Party members, though, in turn, say they see no reason to back that option.
"It has turned into a tradition already. The losing side demands new elections after each election," commented parliamentarian Samvel Nikoian, secretary of the Republican Party's parliamentary faction. "If we call new presidential or parliamentary elections, the losing political parties will again protest the results and will take its supporters out to the streets."
The second proposal for meeting the PACE demands -- fresh amendments to a law on demonstrations -- have proven only slightly less contentious.
The changes require that the police now provide "reliable" information that a rally will disrupt public order or undermine the country's stability before the government can ban a demonstration. Courts have one day to issue a ruling on any appeal of the decision.
Impromptu rallies would be allowed, but not if they run beyond six hours.
Parliamentary Speaker Tigran Torosian stressed that the changes would "prevent a repetition of March 1."
The opposition Heritage Party, however, objects that the new amendments are "cosmetic and a formality."
PACE's demand that the law be revoked in full has not been met, argued parliamentarian Anahit Bakhsian "[T]he draft law changes only two provisions and does it in a way that will not stop officials from finding reasons not to authorize rallies."
For now, few Armenians venture to predict what PACE's response will be at its next session later this month.
At a May 26-27 meeting in Kyiv, PACE monitors welcomed the steps taken by Armenia to meet the resolution, but cautioned that the measures so far "have led to only a few tangible results."
The monitors expressed frustration at the lack of an independent inquiry into the events of March 1 and found that "no progress" had been made in releasing prisoners "detained on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges."
But one ruling party parliamentarian says that not all PACE requirements need to be met blindly.
"The stability of our state is much more important," said Rafik Petrosian, deputy chairperson of the parliamentary committee for public affairs and the protection of human rights. "They [PACE] have made demands without going deep into the situation in the Republic of Armenia, without understanding that any gathering may turn into a national massacre."
Whether PACE will agree remains moot.
"[A]lthough time is limited," PACE monitors wrote late last month, "it is still possible for the Armenian authorities to address the requirements of the Assembly."
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the online ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.