“Revolution” is again a buzzword in Armenia. Armenian opposition leaders, buoyed by a series of successful anti-government uprisings across the former Soviet Union, have opened a new political season with pledges to effect regime change in their country in a similar fashion. Some of them plan to launch a fresh campaign of street protests against President Robert Kocharian in the coming months and count on Western (more specifically U.S.) support for the effort.
The opposition already tried last year to oust Kocharian with such a campaign. But it eventually ran out of steam amid a harsh government response and, more importantly, a lack of popular support. So far there have been no indications that it can pull larger crowds this time around.
This explains why Kocharian and his allies sound supremely confident about their ability to hold off another challenge to their rule. Meeting with university students on April 11, the Armenian leader again argued that his positions are strong because his administration boasts a stronger security apparatus and has a better economic track record than did the toppled regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
Kocharian also derided his political opponents, suggesting they are suffering from “an inferiority complex” vis-à-vis their more successful counterparts in the three ex-Soviet states. “They have failed not because they are too bad, but because our country is better and its government is more effective,” he said.
“I only see an illegitimacy complex,” Stepan Demirchian, the top leader of Armenia’s biggest opposition alliance, Artarutiun (Justice), shot back the next day, recalling Kocharian’s 2003 re-election that was criticized as undemocratic by Western monitors. Curiously, Kocharian has never asserted that his contest was cleaner than the rigged elections that sparked the revolutions in Tbilisi, Kyiv, and Bishkek.
Speaking at a conference earlier in April, Demirchian and other Artarutiun leaders pledged to make a fresh push for regime change but would not say when it will happen. “We will choose the right moment for carrying out regime change as a result of a popular movement,” one of them, Victor Dallakian, said vaguely.
Kocharian must be far more worried about his most dangerous opponent, former prime minister Aram Sarkisian, who leads one of nine parties making up Artarutiun. Sarkisian and his party called Hanrapetutiun (Republic) have drifted apart from the opposition bloc for the past few months, criticizing Demirchian for his notorious indecision.
Sarkisian believes that the opposition would have had a better chance of coming to power last year had it advocated a radical re-orientation of Armenia’s foreign policy. “Armenia needs a revolution, a change of values, not [a mere] regime change,” he declared at a Hanrapetutiun conference on April 15. “I call on every citizen of the Republic of Armenia to join us,” he added. “I also address this call to non-discredited government officials.”
Opposition sources say the firebrand politician, who believes that Kocharian had a hand in the 1999 assassination of his brother and predecessor Vazgen Sarkisian, would like to go on the offensive this summer, whereas Demirchian wants to wait at least until this fall. Both men appear to think that the United States can press Kocharian’s regime not to use force against peaceful demonstrators anymore. They also question the European Union’s and other pan-European structures’ commitment to Armenia’s democratization. However, even Washington has not signaled its support for the Armenian opposition so far.
Observers agree that attendance levels at opposition rallies remain the decisive factor in attempts at regime change in Armenia. The biggest opposition rally last year was attended by up to 20,000 people. It is not clear what might cause Armenians unhappy with their government take to the streets in larger numbers.
Opposition leaders hope that the upcoming referendum on amendments to Armenia’s constitution, drafted by the authorities, or local elections and due in October, will serve as a catalyst for a massive pro-democracy movement. Kocharian may yet move to scrap a constitutional provision barring him from seeking a third term of office in 2008.
But such calculations are still too hypothetical. And as another prominent oppositionist, Vazgen Manukian, admitted in an interview with RFE/RL on April 18, popular discontent with the state of affairs in Armenia will not necessarily translate into support for the opposition. “There must also be faith in some serious force, a belief that that force will not only change the regime but also the situation in the country,” he said. “The people still lack that faith and it is difficult to arouse it.”
Tigran Paskevichian, a columnist with the independent weekly 168 Zham, made a similar point last month, arguing that the spectacular revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were the expressions of a popular desire to embrace Western values. He is not sure most Armenians want to make such a choice.
“Do we have today the ‘critical mass’ that realizes the difference between Soviet and Western values?” Paskevichian wrote. “Do we have today the ‘critical mass’ that wants to get rid of the flawed Soviet lifestyle. If we do, then long live the revolution.”
(Haykakan Zhamanak, April 12; RFE/RL Armenia Report, April 15, 18; 168 Zham, March 9)