Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 20

The re-legalization of Armenia’s Dashnak Party on the cards

By Emil Danielyan

The Armenian authorities are poised to reinstate one of the country’s oldest political parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) or Dashnaktsutiun. The party was suspended three years ago by President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who accused it of harboring a secret terrorist cell. Now, however, the Armenian government needs the support that only the Dashnaks can provide. For most observers, the question is not "whether" but "when" the Dashnaks will resume legal activity in Armenia.


The ARF was founded in 1890 with the aim of creating two autonomous Armenian entities within the Russian and Ottoman empires. Over time, that aim evolved into the establishment of an independent state in what is considered to be historic Armenia. The Dashnaks became increasingly engaged in guerrilla warfare in the eastern Ottoman provinces and in terrorist protest against some of the oppressive policies of tsarist rule in the Caucasus.

The Dashnaks were the founders of the short-lived independent Armenian Republic in 1918. Following the fall of the republic under Bolshevik pressure in 1921, the Dashnaks went into exile where they remained until the Communist rule came to an end in Soviet Armenia in 1990. The ARF returned to the homeland as the strongest diaspora party and with the aura of a century-long fighter for the national cause. This heroic image was reinforced during the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in which the Dashnak party played an active military and financial role. This is one of the main sources of the party’s present popularity. Today, the Dashnak party is the strongest and best organized force in the diaspora.

The party’s activities in Armenia were suspended by President Ter-Petrosian in December 1994. The Armenia president accused the ARF of sheltering a secret terrorist cell, "Dro," whose members allegedly engaged in terrorism, sabotage and narcotics-smuggling with the aim of destabilizing the situation in the country and pave the way for the ARF to come to power. A dozen ARF members were arrested in connection with the Dro case and put on trial, charged with drug-trafficking and murder. Although a year-long investigation by a Yerevan court found no connection between the party and the alleged terrorist group, the government closed a number of Dashnak-funded newspapers, raided their offices and seized their equipment. In January 1995, the Armenian Supreme Court formally suspended the party’s activities. The court ignored Ter-Petrosian’s charges of terrorism, however, and instead suspended the party on the grounds that it had violated a ban against foreign nationals belonging to Armenian political parties.

Renewing Contacts

The re-legalization of the Dashnaks would be the logical conclusion of a dialogue between the party and President Ter-Petrosian’s government that began in April this year. A delegation of ARF leaders is expected to meet with Ter-Petrosian before the end of this year. In anticipation of this meeting, the government has made several conciliatory gestures. These include the return to the ARF of most of its premises and property and permission to publish a daily Dashnak newspaper. Furthermore, Armenian foreign minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and other diplomats have publicly praised and thanked the Dashnaks for their pro-Armenian lobbying efforts in the international arena. These statements were unprecedented for a government that had previously described the ARF as a terrorist organization and demanded that other countries ban the party’s diaspora branches.

The Armenian government is extending the olive branch to the Dashnaks because it needs their support in the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In recent months, Yerevan has come under increasing pressure from the international community to make concessions to resolve the conflict. Ter-Petrosian needs the international support that only the Dashnak party, as the strongest and best organized force in diaspora, can supply. The ARF controls one of two key Armenian-American lobbying groups that have, between them, succeeded in persuading the U.S. Congress to impose and maintain a ban on U.S. government aid to Azerbaijan because of Baku’s blockade of Armenia and Karabakh. Congress’ latest pro-Armenian measure (undertaken to the dismay of the Clinton administration) was a decision to render economic aid worth $12.5 million to Karabakh, bypassing Baku. The Dashnaks, with their strong diaspora presence, played a key role in securing the decision. The party also tries, albeit with less success, to influence attitudes toward the Karabakh issue of France and Russia, countries with large Armenian communities which act, together with the U.S., as co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, dedicated to resolving the Karabakh conflict.

The Dashnaks’ ability to put pressure on the Minsk Group countries is what makes the party so useful in the eyes of Armenia’s leaders. Calls for "national unity" and "consolidation of the forces of the entire nation" have accordingly been heard with increasing frequency from Armenian officials. Last summer, Armenian prime minister Robert Kocharian and foreign minister Arzumanian paid previously unimaginable visits to ARF headquarters in Athens, apparently with the aim of discussing closer cooperation between the Dashnaks and the Ter-Petrosian government. Arzumanian even acknowledged that the Dashnaks’ lobbying of the U.S. Congress had been coordinated with his ministry.

Internal political considerations have also played a role in Ter-Petrosian’s decision to seek a rapprochement with the banned party. The first closed-door meeting of top Armenian government and Dashnak officials, which took place in April this year, marked the beginning of the break-up of an opposition alliance of which the ARF had until then been a leading member. The opposition National Accord Bloc (NAB) was created on the eve of the September 1996 presidential election to put forward a single opposition candidate. The opposition candidate, Vazgen Manukian of the opposition National Democratic Union (NDU), was narrowly beaten by Ter-Petrosian who won just over 50 percent of the vote. OSCE election monitors questioned the official vote tally, however, saying that serious violations of election regulations gave cause for "lack of confidence in the integrity of the overall election process." The Dashnaks along with the rest of the opposition refused to recognize Ter-Petrosian’s re-election and found themselves embroiled in a standoff with the authorities.

The Dashnaks’ subsequent decision, in April this year, to begin a dialogue with the authorities was strongly criticized as a betrayal of their cause by the NDU and other parties making up the NAB. The squabble that ensued within the opposition led in September of this year to the disintegration of the opposition alliance. Some commentators attributed this to an alleged secret deal according to which the Dashnaks would pull out of the NAB in exchange for the legalization of their party. These commentators pointed to the fact that the ARF has recently become the most moderate of the opposition parties and has distanced itself from the NDU’s calls for a mass movement to oust Ter-Petrosian’s "illegal regime."

What is certain is that Ter-Petrosian has benefited from the collapse of the formidable opposition alliance regardless of whether he and the Dashnaks actually caused it. The Armenian president no longer faces the united front that put up such strong opposition during the 1996 presidential election.


Despite all these circumstances, several serious obstacles to the reinstatement of the ARF still remain. The ARF is at odds over policy with the Ter-Petrosian-led Armenian Pan-National Movement (APM), which argues that "normal" relations with Armenia’s neighbors, Turkey included, offer the best guarantee of national independence. By contrast, the Dashnaks emphasize "Hai Dat" (literally, "the Armenian Cause," or Armenian irredenta). This involves the recognition of the 1915 genocide of over one million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the return of territories in what is now eastern Turkey that were supposed, under the Treaty of Sevres of 1920, to have become part of Armenia. The ARF views Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran as countries interested in the realization of Hai Dat.

The ARF and the APM also disagree over economic policy, with the APM favoring a free market economy and the Dashnaks supporting "Scandinavian-style" socialism. As for the Karabakh conflict, the ARF has been more intransigent than the APM, ruling out any settlement that would restore Azerbaijani sovereignty over the enclave. Nor has the conflict between the ARF and the Armenian leadership followed a pattern of a "civilized" political struggle. Many observers saw Ter-Petrosian’s decree suspending the ARF as a landmark in Armenia’s retreat from democracy. Political expedience rather than observance of the rule of law appears to have been behind the ban. The fact that the ARF was registered with the Ministry of Justice in 1991 without problems but was outlawed six months before the July 1995 parliamentary elections adds weight to this view.

A serious obstacle to the Dashnaks’ reinstatement is the party’s worldwide presence, which puts it in conflict with Armenia’s ban on foreign membership of Armenian political parties. The structure and statutes of the Dashnak party have remained essentially unchanged since its creation and were designed for the harsh conditions suffered by the Armenian people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The party’s structure remains unique in that the ARF consists of a dozen decentralized territorial organizations spread all over the world. Each territorial organization (in North America, France, Lebanon, and so on) has its own central committee. The central committees have traditionally enjoyed considerable latitude even though their activities are supervised and coordinated by a bureau (currently based in Athens). In recent years, the role of the bureau has tended to increase, and the principle of collective leadership remains in force.

The ban on the ARF’s activities forced the party to amend its statutes as far as its organization inside Armenia was concerned. At a party congress in late 1995, the Armenian territorial organization was granted an extraordinarily high degree of autonomy and the right to decide its own internal organizational issues. In other words, the Armenian organization got a status higher than the party’s other branches. But the move did not satisfy the authorities in Yerevan, who have continued to demand a complete separation between Dashnak structures in the diaspora and in Armenia. Indeed, the party did not cease to be a single organization, and this is being interpreted as a breach of the prohibition on foreign membership of Armenian political parties. However, Dashnak leaders both in Armenia and abroad have been very reluctant to see their more than 100-year-old party split up. The Armenian territorial organization, which convened for a closed-door conference in early November, reportedly rebuffed the idea of separation. This may complicate the party’s reinstatement.

Another obstacle is the ongoing trial of 31 Dashnak party members and supporters accused of plotting the violent overthrow of the government. The 31 men, among them popular Dashnak leader Vahan Hovannisian, were arrested in July 1995. The trial, condemned as politically motivated by the opposition and human rights groups, has been going on for almost two years and is expected to end shortly. The original charge of coup-plotting has been dropped but state prosecutors have nonetheless continued to demand that the key defendant, Hovannisian, be sentenced to seven years in prison. Relations between the authorities and the ARF are unlikely to normalize unless Hovannisian is set free. Very few believe in the independence of Armenia’s judiciary and most are convinced that the trial of the 31 is politically motivated and will be resolved only if Ter-Petrosian personally makes a "political" decision. Some observers are becoming suspicious about the slowness of the reinstatement process and expressing doubts about the president’s real intentions regarding the Dashnaks.

The apparent disagreement among the country’s ruling elite over Ter-Petrosian’s recent conciliatory statements on settling the Karabakh conflict may also have an impact on the fate of the ARF. (See Emil Danielyan, "Nagorno-Karabakh: Imminent Breakthrough or Yet Another Stalemate?" Prism, November 7, 1997) Prime Minister Kocharian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian have taken a harder line on the Karabakh issue, closer to that of the ARF than that apparently being advocated by Ter-Petrosian. Kocharian and Sargsian are believed to disapprove of Ter-Petrosian’s calls for concessions to Azerbaijan. If the inner-government discord is exacerbated, the more intransigent government figures could find allies among the Dashnaks. The ARF might thereby gain an opportunity to reassert itself on Armenia’s political scene. In the meantime, the Dashnak Party, still operating in semi-legal conditions, awaits the "political" decision on its fate — a decision that could have a profound impact on Armenia’s internal politics.

Emil Danielyan is a freelance journalist in Yerevan, Armenia.


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