Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian has banished one of the three political parties represented in his government after it appeared to threaten his reported plans to hand over power to a staunch loyalist in 2008. The Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party officially announced its withdrawal from the ruling coalition on May 12. Its ambitious leader, Artur Baghdasarian, also resigned as speaker of the Armenian parliament.
The move followed mass defections of lawmakers affiliated with Orinats Yerkir, an exodus widely believed to have been engineered by the presidential administration. Baghdasarian’s party boasted the second-largest faction in the National Assembly as recently as last month, controlling 20 of its 131 seats. It shrank by almost half in a matter of one week.
The official reasons for the party’s ouster are its socioeconomic and foreign policy differences with Kocharian and the two other coalition partners. Both sides have been reluctant to elaborate on those differences. The coalition has been beset by internal squabbles ever since its formation in June 2003. Much of the bickering has been caused by Orinats Yerkir’s periodic public criticism of the government, a tactic that has been particularly galling for Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The latter has also had an uneasy rapport with the third governing party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD).
Kocharian has repeatedly intervened to salvage the three-party marriage of convenience that has enabled him to deflect popular disaffection with the government and somehow mitigate his lack of legitimacy. As recently as February 6, the HHK, the HHD, and Orinats Yerkir vowed (apparently under pressure from Kocharian) to continue to stick together “at least” until next year’s parliamentary election. In a joint statement, they also agreed to show “mutual respect for each other and each other’s positions.”
However, the truce did not prove long lasting, with Orinats Yerkir lashing out at the Armenian government (in which it was represented with three ministers) on April 11 over its shady privatization policies (see EDM, April 19). The attack drew an angry rebuttal from Markarian and his loyalists. Baghdasarian further raised eyebrows in Yerevan with an April 19 interview with a leading German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which he contradicted the official line by calling for Armenia’s eventual accession to NATO. More importantly, he also implied that Kocharian’s hotly disputed reelection in 2003 was fraudulent.
The extraordinary confession (or a slip of the tongue) seems to have been the final straw for Kocharian, who was reportedly behind the devastating defections from the Orinats Yerkir faction in parliament that began on May 5. The defectors, all of them wealthy businessmen dependent on government connections, offered no clear explanation for their actions. But newspaper reports citing coalition leaders said the exodus was masterminded by Kocharian with the aim of forcing Orinats Yerkir out of the government.
Hayots Ashkhar, a pro-Kocharian daily, indicated on May 15 that the Armenian president has lost patience with Orinats Yerkir’s notorious populism, widely attributed to its strong showing in the last parliamentary polls. “It is more than weird to be part of the government; have a number of government members, a myriad of various-caliber officials, protected and reliable businesses; and play the old tune,” the paper wrote. “This is a violation of the rules of the game. One deserves to be severely punished for that.”
Interestingly, it was Kocharian who went to great lengths in June 2003 to get parliament to elect Baghdasarian as its speaker, fuelling speculation that the then 34-year-old politician was being groomed to become Armenia’s next president. However, it has since become evident that Kocharian’s preferred successor is his most trusted and powerful lieutenant, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. Some local commentators suggest that the two men were incensed not so much by Baghdasarian’s enduring populism as his far-reaching political ambitions that could interfere with their anticipated handover of power in 2008. The outgoing Armenian speaker has already attracted Western interest in his personality with his pro-democracy statements and stated strong commitment to Armenia’s “integration into Europe and the Euro-Atlantic family.”
“Artur Baghdasarian has felt like Robert Kocharian’s successor and begun his pre-election campaign of late,” the independent newspaper 168 Zham wrote on May 11. “In the process, he was doing everything to distance himself from the current authorities thanks to whom he had become the number two official in the Republic of Armenia in 2003.”
Announcing his resignation on May 12, the Orinats Yerkir leader was anxious not to blame Kocharian for the dramatic collapse of his parliamentary faction, saying vaguely that the Orinats Yerkir defectors faced pressure “from all sides.” His claims that Orinats Yerkir is “becoming an opposition force” are therefore unlikely to be taken at face value by leaders of Armenia’s main opposition parties. Some of them have made it clear that Baghdasarian cannot join the opposition camp unless he publicly “repents” his association with Kocharian.
Baghdasarian has owed his strong electoral performances to a canny combination of opposition-style rhetoric with covert cooperation from the ruling regime and wealthy businessmen hungry for political power. Their defections and his subsequent ouster from the government mean that Orinats Yerkir will have to operate in a more hostile environment and with far fewer financial resources.
(Aravot, May 13; Hayots Ashkhar, May 12; 168 Zham, May 11; RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 6)