Opposition predictions of an upcoming "popular revolution" continue to be heard in Armenia, but most local observers say that major opposition parties are not well positioned to realize their revolutionary aspirations.
Following Ukraine's December 2004 Orange Revolution, media outlets, both in the West (The Times of London) and the former Soviet Union (Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta) reported that Armenia could be the next setting for a so-called "color revolution." Some Armenian media outlets went so far as to suggest names for that would-be revolution, including "The Apricot Revolution" and "The Peach Revolution."
Since the start of the year, opposition leaders have repeatedly predicted that President Robert Kocharian's downfall was imminent. "I am sure that these authorities cannot stand until the next regular elections [in 2007]," Aram Sarkisian, leader of the Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party, Armenia's most outspoken opposition party, told the daily Aravot on January 15. In February 9 the Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) Party issued a declaration of intent to foment popular protests in April 2005 in order to help push Kocharian from power. Artashes Geghamian, leader of the National Unity Party, also stated that his party would launch a popular movement in April, but he provided no details. Meanwhile, Stepan Demirchian, leader of the Ardarutiun (Justice) bloc, of which the Republic Party is a member, has spoken of an upcoming "power shift."
As yet, the predictions have proven to be more talk than action. Several factors appear to pose obstacles for the opposition's plans.
Timing is the first. In Georgia in November 2003, Ukraine last December, and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, mass protests followed national elections that the opposition claimed were rigged. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Armenia's presidential and parliamentary elections in 2003 were accompanied by widespread complaints about voting irregularities. However, opposition parties at the time could not capitalize on the widespread feelings of discontent. An opposition-led protest campaign fizzled in 2004 when authorities resorted to tough tactics to disperse demonstrators. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The country's next parliamentary election will not occur until 2007, although local elections are scheduled to be held this fall.
Since the 2004 demonstrations, Armenia's economy has shown some improvement, fostering a greater sense of stability in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "In Armenia, the peasants know that for most of their problems the community head is responsible, so they will not blame the central government if, say, the irrigation canals are not properly cleaned," said Aharon Adibekian, director of the sociological agency Sociometr, in a recent interview with Kentron TV, a private television station. "The situation in Georgia was quite different, as local [government] bodies did not work there."
The opposition's organizational weaknesses pose a second obstacle. Observers, including Caucasus Media Institute Yerevan Director Alexander Iskandarian, believe Armenia's opposition lacks a charismatic opposition leader comparable to Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili or Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko. Competition rather than partnership has mostly marked the interactions between the leaders of the two most influential opposition leaders, Demirchian and Geghamian. When the two announced a boycott of parliament in early 2004, they hoped to gain widespread popular support. Instead, one year later, the boycott appears to have only denied the opposition an opportunity to express their opinions on the national stage. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In addition, opposition parties have been unable to counter Kocharian administration steps to limit their influence. When, in 2004, police illegally blocked regular bus traffic in Armenia's regions to prevent potential opposition supporters from reaching Yerevan for rallies, the opposition was unable to develop methods to circumvent authorities' preventative measures. With that experience in mind, the population may be less inclined to turn out for opposition-sponsored events in 2005. "The peach has not matured yet," the Yerevan-based daily Aravot concluded.
Apparently sensing that he was potentially vulnerable politically, Kocharian recently urged politicians to set up a strong opposition. "[A] [w]eak opposition corrupts the authorities," he said in a February 2005 online interview with the Golos Armenii (Voice of Armenia) newspaper. At the same time, Kocharian has stepped up contacts with the US government, in part to cut off a potential source of support for opposition politicians. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Terming the opposition's absence from parliament "very painful," Kocharian, in an April 11 meeting with students at Yerevan State University, showed no concern about the possibility of political upheaval. "I would like to urge our opposition activists to rid themselves of a complex about failing to stage a revolution," he said in remarks broadcast by Armenia Public Television. "We often read in the press that our opposition is very weak and bad. It has failed not because it is working badly, but simply because the authorities in our country are working more effectively and better."
While the more influential opposition groups appear to be toning down their revolutionary rhetoric, attempts are underway to create new anti-Kocharian political blocs. A possible alliance among the Liberal Progressive Party, Sarkisian's Republic Party and former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovhannisian's Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party has attracted the most attention to date. Resistance to such a coalition remains strong in Sarkisian's Republic Party. If it comes together, this alliance could prove a serious player in the 2007 parliamentary elections.
On April 15, Sarkisian told supporters that "the revolution will be a surprise," adding that no party should "regard the revolution as its monopoly," the Noyan Tapan agency reported. Two days earlier, during a conference organized by the Justice bloc, Demirchian stressed that "the change of power" would take place "in a peaceful and constitutional way," the news agency ArmInfo reported. "The resignation of the incumbent authorities is an essential requirement of society around which all the healthy political forces of the country should unite."
Such rhetoric does not seem to worry Kocharian. "[M]embers of the opposition say nothing," the president told Yerevan State University students. "The reason is that in order to express your views on a subject you must know what you are talking about and have some experience."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.