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Armenia’s Changing Political Landscape

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Armenia’s political landscape saw quite a few developments in the weeks following the resignation of former Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan. The events that transpired served no other purpose than to reproduce the power of the ruling elite. However, a broader look at the state of affairs points to the increasing isolation of the ruling Republican Party.

Sargsyan’s resignation and the subsequent dissolution of the government came at a time of significant pressure by what has come to be known as the opposition quartet. The political parties placing themselves on the opposition spectrum—Prosperous Armenia, the Armenian National Congress, Heritage, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation—had finally come together around a united agenda. With a collective number of 52 MPs in the 131-member National Assembly, the opposition had become a force to be reckoned with. The parties were preparing to organize mass protests in support of a vote of no confidence in the government on April 28. Given the general dissatisfaction with the authorities, it was highly likely that the four parties would have succeeded in mobilizing the public and increasing pressure on the authorities.

Of course, everything turned on its head with the April 3 resignation of the prime minister. The Republican Party averted a “face-off” with the opposition and has since sought to cement its power by ensuring that its representatives retain key posts within the new government. However, with ongoing cooperation between the quartet on the one hand, and the emergence of issue-based civic activism in Armenia on the other, the Republican Party has a challenging task ahead.

Finding common ground has not been an easy task for the opposition. There are still instances where the four parties are unable to come to an agreement. Perhaps the most recent example is the election of the National Assembly’s new speaker, Galust Sahakyan. While the ANC, Heritage, and ARF boycotted the vote, most Prosperous Armenia representatives cast their ballot in favor of the Republican candidate. A speaker for Prosperous Armenia said its members were allowed the right to vote as they chose because the four opposition parties were not able to formulate a common position.

Nonetheless, the opposition continues to cooperate in other areas. Last week, all four parties boycotted the parliamentary vote of confidence in the new government’s three-year plan. The vote was also boycotted by the Country of Law Party, which officially left the ruling coalition and declared itself an opposition. The plan was adopted by only 70 votes, just above the bare minimum necessary for a successful vote.

In a recent interview, the head of the ARF’s parliamentary faction, Armen Rustamyan, explained the dynamic within the opposition. The quartet, he said, is not a coalition. Rather, the parties cooperate around issues where they are able to find common ground; conversely, each is free to act as it sees fit if consensus cannot be reached.

The existence of the quartet, even in its current format, is not good news for the Republican Party. This has been evident on several occasions in recent months, including in the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Sargsyan. It would be naive to argue that these events were not put in motion to specifically abort the opposition’s expected vote of no confidence in the government and the planned mass protests.

It remains to be seen how the quartet will proceed and what actions it will take. However, it seems that now more than in previous years, the Republican Party has reason to worry when it comes to retaining power. When Republican Eduard Sharmazanov had the audacity to claim that his party will remain in power for the next decade, Prosperous Armenia leader Gagik Tsarukian was quick to respond. The people are ready to “rise up, take care of their votes, and change the situation,” said Tsarukian, adding that “victory in the elections, whether they are presidential or parliamentary, will bypass Melik-Adamian Street this time around.” (Melik-Adamyan Street is where the Republican Party’s headquarters are located.)

The coming together of the quartet aside, another phenomenon is emerging in Armenia: issue-based civic opposition. These are movements, actively driven by civic groups, that are channeling popular dissatisfaction with specific policies or issues that have strong resonance among the broader population. The protests against the public transport price hike last year and the “dem.am” initiative against the pension law reform are good examples of this phenomenon.

When Yerevan Mayor Daron Margaryan announced a 50 percent increase in bus fares last July, no one was prepared for the spontaneous rallies that followed. People boldly boycotted the fare change, volunteers used their cars to give free rides to commuters, young girls offered hugs to those who refused to pay the extra fee, even some bus drivers joined the movement. The public outrage subsequently led to a “suspension” of the decision.

The reaction was similar to a pension law reform introduced early this year. The law imposed compulsory pension contributions for people born after 1974 through a 5-10 percent payment from their gross salary into one of two private pension funds authorized by the government. What began as a protest movement mainly driven by the IT sector, quickly spread far and wide. Lawyers, economists, healthcare staff, teachers, artists, and workers from the electricity and rail networks, the Yerevan underground railway, and the Metsamor nuclear power station all joined the “dem.am” movement.

With the quartet also opposing the proposed reform, what ensued was a campaign of sustained public and political pressure. On April 2, the Constitutional Court ruled the pension law reform unconstitutional and gave the authorities a deadline of Sept. 30 to bring the law into conformity with the Constitution. This sparked fresh protests and in mid-May the government introduced an amendment to the law allowing employees to opt out of its mandatory component.

Overall, both these movements have been able to achieve relatively small, short-term wins that can have long-term impact.

These movements have the potential to be formational, particularly for those leading and organizing them. The young activists behind these movements are gaining valuable experience in self-organizing, advocacy, and in mobilizing other citizens to peacefully defend their rights. As such, these movements have the power to shape a future generation of political leaders.

Issue-based opposition of this type is also empowering the wider public. Ultimately, these movements are allowing for public influence on government decision-making in a way that is rarely available to the citizens of Armenia. The failed attempt to increase the public transport fare and the Constitutional Court’s ruling regarding the pension reform are rare instances whereby sustained public pressure has forced the authorities to amend or reverse a government decision.

At a time when elections are rigged, when there is no faith in the judiciary, when despair and disappointment are driving people out of the country, even the smallest wins can boost public morale and restore people’s faith in the power of their voice and the legitimacy of their rights. They can also play an important role in gradually breaking the chains of fear still evident among some sectors of the society and in regional areas.

Finally, these movements can have a snowball effect both in terms of the level of public mobilization and the outcomes they produce. Every successful action will encourage more people to join the next protest or boycott. Similarly, every successful outcome will pave the way for the next one.

Whether civic activism in Armenia will have the impact it can, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, however. While the ruling power is preoccupied with reproducing itself, young activists are slowly changing the rules of the game.

1 Comment on Armenia’s Changing Political Landscape

  1. “another phenomenon is emerging in Armenia: issue-based civic opposition.”

    This is good news. The issue-based campaigns by a civil society have been a powerful engine of democratic change in other countries as well. They can be more effective than naked calls for change of government, which has been the traditional (and ineffective) approach by opposition parties. The strengthening of this movement puts the government in Armenia before a dilemma. It can either address the issues and retreat bit by bit from its grip of power over the Armenian society, or face more disruptive opposition. This will keep undermining the legal and institutional bases of the regime, which will help bring about democracy in Armenia.

    What this issue-based civil society, especially lawyers and other professionals, need to focus on now is a new constitution, or at least changes to the constitution of Armenia, including more frequent elections, greater independence for the judiciary, and stronger language for protections of freedom of speech and other human rights. As I have stated many times before, the current constitution of Armenia is a mess which provides huge legal loopholes for the regime to keep its grip on power. A new constitution will have to be modeled after existing constitutions of successful, established democracies that have proven their success. My preference, as I have stated before, is the constitution of the United States, the longest-surviving modern democracy, itself a model for many later constitutions. This is because the U.S. constitution has helped the United States succeed in three characteristics that we all want for Armenia: prosperity (largest economy in the world), strength (most powerful country), and stability (200+ years of the same constitution).

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