The ARF rolls the dice in a bold move

Ishkhan Saghatelyan, Robert Kocharyan and Vahe Hakobyan at the Aram Manoukian statue in Yerevan, May 29 (Photo: Facebook/Հայաստան դաշինք)

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (known as ARF-D in Armenia) has a long and historic presence in the global Armenian community. After the fall of the First Republic in 1921 (including the February 18th revolt), the ARF shifted its focus and became a superb organizer of the new diaspora communities, particularly in Europe, the Americas and the Middle East. The ARF spearheaded the building of schools, churches and other infrastructure needs to prepare successive generations and prevent assimilation in the host countries. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the ARF from the post-Republic era was the incredible challenge of keeping the torch of patriotism alive in the diaspora through the teaching of history, community celebrations and advocacy work. The ARF and its affiliate organizations such as the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), Homenetmen and Hamazkayin became the gatekeepers for the “Armenian Cause” (Hai Tahd). This remains a remarkable achievement in the diaspora and appropriately positioned the community to engage with the independence of Armenia as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union. Almost overnight in September 1991, the flag the ARF had defended for decades would become the flag of the new Republic of Armenia embraced by the entire Armenian global nation. The unifying effect was almost immediate as other major groups such as the diocese and AGBU openly supported all pan-Armenian causes, establishing a foundation of selective oneness. The ARF today and grassroots advocacy groups such as the Armenian National Committee (ANC) are recognized in the diaspora as the leading activists in support of Armenia, Artsakh and Armenian rights.

In 1991 with the establishment of the independent Republic of Armenia, the ARF made a series of adjustments to adapt to the new reality of a sovereign state. For decades, the Supreme Council of the ARF operated in the diaspora with party members from around the world. With the decision to join the political process in the new Republic, the ARF moved its Supreme Council to the homeland and began a new journey as a party vested in the future of Armenia and Artsakh.

The early years of the Republic were a struggle for democracy and in particular the electoral process. The first President of Armenia Levon Ter Petrosyan took the extraordinary step in late 1994 of banning the ARF as a political party in Armenia, preventing the party from participating in the electoral campaigns and closing the party newspaper “Yerkir.” Ter Petrosyan introduced evidence that charged the ARF with engaging in terrorism and plotting against the sitting government. ARF offices were raided, and over 30 members were arrested. There was strong speculation that the “evidence” may have been presented to prevent the ARF from gaining seats in the July 1995 parliamentary election. After the elections, most of those charged were exonerated with the exception of several individuals who were indicted with the lesser charge of engaging in corrupt business practices. 

This was a difficult period and did little to promote democracy. The ban on the party continued for the duration of the Ter Petrosyan administration and was lifted in February 1998 shortly after Ter Petrosyan was forced out of office and replaced by Robert Kocharyan. The latter was backed by the ARF and reflected the long relationship between Kocharyan and the ARF going back to the Artsakh liberation movement. Since the ARF was able to fully participate in 1999 elections, they have been a consistent although not dominant presence on the political scene. From 1990 to 2017, the ARF held at least one seat in the National Assembly with a high of 16 seats in 2007. They have either backed presidential candidates (under the previous system) or on occasion offered their own candidates. The ARF has also entered into coalitions with the Republican Party, which it exited after the Zurich Protocols were signed in 2009. They also left the Sargsyan coalition during the Velvet Revolution and backed the Pashinyan movement. During these coalition periods from 2007 to 2016, party candidates also held several ministerial posts and positions as territorial governors. Although the ARF has never polled greater than 13.2 percent (2007), they have shrewdly entered into coalitions to expand their power base with the aforementioned power-sharing deals. They have been also able to maintain an independent identity by exiting coalitions over policy issues on at least two occasions.

Since 2018, the ARF has not been seated in the parliament as many parties were shut out with the “Velvet wave.” Only three parties are currently represented in the National Assembly dominated by Pashinyan’s My Step alliance along with Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia. It should be noted that the traditional attributes of organization and discipline have supplemented their support on the ground in Armenia and Artsakh. At various times, the party has made significant contributions in volunteer military reserve battalions, social services and support from the diaspora. Shortly after the Pashinyan government took control of the National Assembly, the ARF transitioned into an opposition party, focusing their concerns on domestic and foreign policy. During this negotiated electoral cycle, the ARF announced its intention to join the Armenia Alliance and support Kocharyan’s candidacy.

The decision of the ARF to back Kocharyan surprised and disappointed many Armenian Americans. When you look beyond the personalities and the perceptions, it actually could have been predicted. There are a few major parties in Armenia. There are numerous small parties that have little chance of meeting the threshold for participation (five percent). An alternative for political participation is to enter into an alliance with other parties. The threshold increases to seven percent for alliances, but the right alignment could increase the probability of gaining seats. Since this is a party/alliance list election, the Armenia Alliance list is headed by Kocharyan, but the second on the list is from the ARF. It is reported that half of the list candidates are from the ARF. According to polls in Armenia, Pashinyan held a sizable lead about six weeks ago, polling in the mid to high 30-percent while the Armenia Alliance was in high single digits. As the informal and now formal campaigns continue, Pashinyan’s lead has eroded significantly, and Kochayan’s alliance has made marked progress. With the five percent threshold for gaining seats, it is now considered a close two-way race. Given that both of the leaders have a plurality and not a majority, the third or fourth parties (assuming they pass the threshold) may hold the key for a governing coalition. Either way, it seems that the ARF is positioned to have a substantial presence in the 2021 National Assembly. For a party that gained only 3.86 percent in the last election (failing to meet the threshold) and has been shut out since 2018, this is a major recovery.

While some in the diaspora are not pleased with the ARF’s alliance with Kocharyan, one needs to judge this in the context of the available options. The reality is that this election is about stabilizing in the short term. It is about the security of Armenia and the protection of its sovereignty. Interestingly, elections in Armenia are rarely a detailed review of the issues, but rather the perception of the candidates. In that regard, it is logical to understand Kocharyan’s rise in the polls. The loss of the Artsakh War and the resulting humiliation (territorial incursions, POWs, etc.) happened on the watch of the incumbent Prime Minister. The credibility of the current government has been tarnished. Although Kocharyan’s tenure was marred by corruption and oligarch perceptions, apparently many voters are more interested in his strong stance on national security. Many voters are thinking that at least we didn’t lose territory under his administration. The alliance with the ARF adds the consistent seven to ten-percent average the party has polled historically and also a ground organization that will deliver support. If the Alliance loses the election, the ARF will probably still gain a number of opposition seats which will be considered an improvement from its current lack of a parliamentary mandate. Again, when you move past the emotion of personalities and the options under consideration, this seems to be a wise move. No party has become the beneficiary of alliances and coalitions in the Armenian government more effectively than the ARF.

It is my hope that if the ARF is successful with the Armenia Alliance, that they use this endowment for the short term security of Armenia without sacrificing the democratic institutions that have developed in the last several years. All parties and alliances must include women on one-third of their lists. It is critical that these women take on responsible positions in the government to continue the social maturation of our Armenian society. There can be no turning back on issues such as gender equality, domestic violence and economic prosperity, which are some of the true measures of the advancement of our democracy. Of course, the national security concerns must take short-term priority as Armenia is in the midst of a crisis, but we have the bandwidth to do both. Actually, the most important responsibility will be with those who lose the election. Will they transition into a loyal opposition? Will they consider a coalition if required? Will their patriotism prevail or self-interest? We will learn a great deal as we approach the June 20 elections and political alignments emerge. Pray for stability in the homeland.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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  1. Would love to see this type of analysis in ARF
    Media more often. Weekly. For diaspora and Armenia. Thanks

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