YEREVAN—On the surface, Armenian citizens seem to be divided into two camps—those who enthusiastically support the government and those in sheer defiance, regardless of whether those opinions are made public or held secret. There are no popular parties per se, with none of them actively campaigning for wide public support. The ruling Republican Party is no exception, being overwhelmingly endorsed by government employees and those with ties to the ruling elite.
At a time when Armenia has been courting Turkey to jumpstart relations under highly controversial conditions against its own favor, the stew of Armenian politics should be boiling over. Yet strangely enough, concern over the protocols that are meant to forge Turkish-Armenian relations once they are ratified in mid-October is faint.
President Serge Sarkisian’s Republican Party has been fervently supporting the protocols in partnership with its junior coalition parties, Prosperous Armenia and Orinats Yerkir. The government leadership insists that the protocols ensure Armenia’s economic prosperity for all, without revealing specifics about how growth is perceived to be gained and what financial sectors are expected to expand.
The ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, which has been in “positive opposition” to the government since the end of April, has been stepping up efforts to attract attention in its efforts to have several points in the highly controversial protocols amended.
Among the proposed amendments, the party is calling for diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia to be established without preconditions. The party is also opposed to the formation of a historical commission that would seek to establish whether the events of 1915 constituted genocide.
About 50 party members are taking part in a sit-in hunger strike (the protestors take turns breaking their fast every two days) in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Republic Square, where signatures are also being collected in support of the amendments to the protocols that the party has drafted.
However, the Republican majority leader in parliament, Galust Sahakian, was quick to declare the amendments unacceptable. Then, on Sept. 16, Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian made it clear in his address to the National Assembly that the amendments would be considered only after the protocols are signed and sent to parliament for deliberation and ratification. This was found to be unacceptable by the ARF, as announced by party official Armen Rustamian the following day.
As the Republican Party holds the majority of parliamentary seats and enjoys the backing of its two coalition partners, any proposed amendments are sure to be shot down in session moments before the protocols’ ratification. Consequently, the ARF’s true intensions and the anticipated results from its protests remain ambiguous before a confused public trying to ascertain the party’s motives.
Meanwhile, the oppositional Heritage Party, founded by Raffi Hovhannisian, which holds seven seats in parliament, had been insisting that a public referendum be held on whether to accept or reject the protocols. The initiative was subsequently dismissed by the Republican Party.
Yet, the Heritage Party’s firm stance on the rejection of the protocols has been overshadowed by the controversial upheaval within its ranks. Three members of the party, Movses Aristakesyan, Zoya Tadevosyan, and Vardan Khachatryan, were expelled from the ranks, having been accused of secretly collaborating with both opposition and pro-government parties, the specifics of which remain unclear.
Just before the party’s shakeup, Hovhannisian resigned from his seat in the National Assembly under mysterious circumstances while out of the country. Rumors were spread by Tadevosyan that Hovhannisian had submitted a letter to the party’s governing board announcing his resignation from the party as well as from political life, while Khachatryan claimed that Hovhannisian had been aware of the secret negotiations all along. It was not until Sept. 21 that Hovhannisian made scathing comments against the compromising actions of his party members in a released statement. He is due to give a press conference on Oct. 1 to explain his resignation from parliament and give insight on the future of the Heritage Party.
Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian had been highly critical of talks between the Turkish and Armenian leaderships—that lead to the infamous formation of the “framework,” signed in April for developing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
In his address at a rally held on Sept. 18 in Yerevan organized by the oppositional Armenian National Congress—a coalition of several oppositional parties unofficially led by Ter-Petrosian—that was attended by several thousand people, he mainly focused his remarks on the Nagorno-Karabagh negotiations. Ter-Petrosian deems the peace proposals unacceptable, claiming that they are more conciliatory than those that were presented during his presidential term in 1997, specifically referring to the exclusion of a point stipulating the return of Azeri refugees to their homes. Most of his speech was perceived as an academic address to the crowds, with no proposed solutions that would be more in Armenia’s favor and no calls for action delivered to his supporters.
Ter-Petrosian during the rally failed to comment further on his stance regarding the current negotiations between Turkey and Armenia, instead insisting that the border would not open anytime soon. On Sept. 2, the Armenian National Congress released a statement in reaction to the protocols, claiming that “substantial progress” had been made in calls for establishing relations between Armenia and Turkey.
Despite the shroud of uncertainty that has been draped across the Armenian masses looking for answers, one thing is for certain: If any of the opposition parties are indeed serious about enacting change in the way the country is being governed, not to mention protecting Armenian foreign policy from inevitable disaster, they need to exploit the controversy surrounding the protocols to the hilt, and do it quickly. A unified effort is probably unlikely, given the Heritage Party’s internal turmoil and the aloofness of Ter-Petrosian.
An all-out aggressive, convincing measure against the protocols will be the only way for the parties to rally the public behind them, assuming they want to prevent the protocols from being signed. Yet all three players—the Armenian National Congress, the Heritage Party, and especially the ARF—have yet to step up to the plate.