Armenia: Opposition Casting About for a New Catalyst

If a post-Communist record-book were kept of political protests in formerly Soviet states, Armenia could easily rank near the top. But, after years of demonstrations under various politicians, how long will Armenians keep rallying without results?

That’s the question facing former presidential candidate Raffi Hovhannisian, the American-born, opposition Heritage Party leader who finished second to Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia’s February 18 presidential election. Disputing the finish as fraudulent, Hovhannisian, 53, launched a national series of rallies to struggle for “people power.”

Dubbed the “Barevolution,” or “Hello Revolution,” for Hovhannisian’s walkabouts, the protests, drawing thousands of people, initially stirred surprise. After the bloody clashes in 2008 between police and protesters that left 10 people dead after Armenia’s last presidential vote, few had expected many voters to take to the streets to contest the official election results.

But now, nearly a month since the April 9 inauguration that installed Serzh Sargsyan as president for a second term, the Barevolution has become more about good-byes.

The former candidate has since switched his focus from the disputed presidential race to the May 5 elections for Yerevan’s mayor and City Council, but few disgruntled voters still appear to believe in Hovannisian’s pledges for a constant fight for change.

The number of participants at Hovhannisian’s events has dwindled from the thousands to a few hundred. With no concrete results from their rallies, the motivation to gather is decreasing, say some. “The people again appear to be the injured party: new hopes again, and no result,” commented one former Barevolution rally participant, who declined to give his name. “They see no tomorrow and no leader they could rely on.”

Political analysts link the Barevolution’s fleeting lifespan to failures in both strategy and tactics. “Unfortunately, in this case, as well as during the past 20 years, public interests have been totally neglected,” commented independent analyst Stepan Danielian. Hovhannisian’s lack of policy-specific goals and his willingness to tread softly with the government, despite its perceived misdeeds, discouraged many followers, he argued.

Unlike ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who, in 2008, dubbed officials a “Tartar horde,” Hovhannisian, a onetime foreign minister, maintained a political tone in his dealings with the Sargsyan administration, acknowledging its contribution to the construction of modern-day Armenia.

He called on all political groups, including Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), to “take down their political flags” and join hands for “the fight for the sake of the people.”
On April 9, he left thousands of protesters outside the presidential residence to go and pray with the chief of Armenian police, Vladimir Gasparian.

But in Armenia’s combative political environment, those steps did nothing to strengthen the belief among his supporters that he has the grit needed to fight for their rights, some analysts say. Others claim that Hovhannisian’s depiction of his movement as a group of white knights with a semi-messianic mission alienated potential allies. Though calls went out for opposition groups to join Hovhannisian’s supporters, only one of Armenia’s main opposition parties, the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, made regular appearances at Barevolution rallies.

“You cannot fight against the state machine alone, and, in this case, they were left alone,” noted independent analyst Yervand Bozoian. “They were alone because they persisted in claiming that they were the best and purest opposition force. In this case, the key point should have been getting other political forces to abandon their political ambitions and confront the state machine as a united entity.”

Hovhannisian’s Heritage Party rejects such criticism, and denies that it soft-pedaled its opposition to Sargsyan’s government. "Heritage has nothing to do … with authorities," commented Styopa Safarian head of the party’s parliamentary faction. "Everyone knows that Serzh Sargsyan offered Raffi Hovhannisian positions, but he refused, because what we want is not positions.”

Safarian blamed “other opposition forces” for discouraging a broad-based movement. “Everyone has political arrangements with the authorities,” he claimed.

With the Barevolution now considered kaput, other parties are trying to fill the void, and tap into public frustration. Ex-President Ter Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress, calling for a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” has urged all parties to unite against the RPA for Yerevan’s May 5 city elections. Billionaire Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia party also has started staging rallies.

Neither group, though, is thought likely to revamp a national protest movement anytime soon. The Armenian National Congress, which held its first rally in more than a year on April 30 in Yerevan, must still do battle with recollections of the bloodshed that followed its protest movement that followed the controversial 2008 presidential vote. Onetime Sargsyan ally Prosperous Armenia, widely known for distributing handouts from Tsarukian’s charitable foundation, is still viewed as sitting on the fence.

Danielian believes that, ultimately, the fight in Armenia for political reform will go beyond rallies if a party is seen as championing public interests, rather than those of an individual leader. Bozoian, however, disagrees. The key factor to watch, he argues, is time. “The developments we see in our country represent the path that many developed countries have already gone down,” he said. “The fight does not take place in one or two days; the fight against the state machine is quite time-consuming.”

Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.

Armenia: Opposition Casting About for a New Catalyst

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