The dramatic rapprochement with Turkey is having profound implications for Armenia’s domestic political scene and, in particular, among its diverse and volatile opposition. The main opposition player, Levon Ter-Petrosian, has defended President Serzh Sargsyan against what he sees as unjustified nationalist criticism and essentially offered to recognize the latter’s legitimacy questioned by many Armenians (which would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago) (Yerkir-Media TV, November 12).
The about-face further blurred the division lines in Armenian politics that were drawn by the disputed presidential election in February 2008 and the ensuing bloody suppression of anti-government demonstrations staged by the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. This began to change in April, when the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party) quit the country’s governing coalition in protest against Sargsyan’s conciliatory policy towards Turkey. Indeed, this policy was also strongly criticized by other political allies of Sargsyan’s more hard line predecessor, Robert Kocharian.
Ter-Petrosian and most of the dozen opposition groups aligned with his Armenian National Congress (HAK) took a more nuanced, if confusing, approach to the Turkish-Armenian normalization “protocols” signed in Zurich on October 10. Ter-Petrosian, who served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998, finally elaborated on that stance in a keynote speech delivered at a November 11 meeting of senior members of the alliance. He made clear that the only provision in the two agreements unacceptable to the HAK is the clause envisaging the creation of a Turkish-Armenian “sub-commission” that would look into the World War I-era massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He echoed widespread Armenian fears that Ankara would exploit the existence of such a body to prevent more countries from recognizing the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians as genocide.
Ter-Petrosian spent a large part of the speech (the transcript of which was released to the Armenian media) rejecting other arguments against the deal that are advanced by the ARF and other “extreme nationalists.” The latter are especially unhappy with a protocol clause that commits Armenia to explicitly recognize its existing border with Turkey. It goes against their fundamental belief that an eventual Turkish recognition of the genocide should be followed by Armenian territorial claims to areas in eastern Turkey that had a sizable Armenian population until 1915 (www.tert.am, November 12).
Ter-Petrosian denounced the irredentist agenda as a dangerous illusion, which not only precludes Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, but challenges the existing world order. He also stressed, “It is not Sargsyan who first recognized the Turkish-Armenian border –the Dashnaks and Bolsheviks had done that before with the [1920 and 1921] treaties of Alexandropol and Kars. It was not him who renounced territorial claims –it was Robert Kocharian” (www.tert.am, November 12).
The HAK will, therefore, not join in the “nationalist hysteria” sparked by the protocols, continued the former president. Instead, he implied, the opposition bloc could help Sargsyan legitimize his presidency at home, and thus avoid making more concessions to Turkey as well as Azerbaijan. Ter-Petrosian’s right-hand man, Levon Zurabian, clarified at a November 17 news conference that the HAK is ready to cooperate with the president if he releases all “political prisoners” arrested after the 2008 vote, “restores democratic freedoms” and carries out other democratic reforms in Armenia (Radio Free Europe Armenia Report, November 17.)
It was a significant change from the previously uncompromising rhetoric of HAK leaders. In a June 1 speech, for example, Ter-Petrosian branded Sargsyan “an ordinary usurper who must be immediately ousted and put on trial” and called for the formation of a more broad-based anti-government coalition that would also comprise the ARF, his longtime rival. Ter-Petrosian reaffirmed the demand as recently as September 18, chiding the ARF for its continued reluctance to campaign for regime change (EDM, October 14).
“He is offering the authorities a deal,” Giro Manoyan, the ARF foreign policy spokesman, scoffed on November 12 (Yerkir-Media TV, November 12). One of the nationalist party’s senior leaders, Hrant Markarian, spoke about the possibility of such a deal with alarm during a November 15 meeting in Paris of Armenian diaspora groups opposed to the Turkish-Armenian agreements. Markarian wondered whether Ter-Petrosian “has already reached an agreement with Serzh Sargsyan behind the scenes” and urged the Armenian leader not to “surrender” to his most influential opponent (www.tert.am, November 16).
Sargsyan has not yet personally reacted to Ter-Petrosian’s extraordinary overtures. On November 18 the pro-presidential daily Hayots Ashkhar quoted the chief spokesman for his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Eduard Sharmazanov, as noting with satisfaction that the opposition leader “announced the elimination of the demand for Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation.” “If Ter-Petrosian really has any desire to cooperate, he should not send messages or drop hints, but should have the courage and resolve to participate in the [multi-party] discussions and meetings periodically initiated by the president,” said Sharmazanov (Hayots Ashkhar, November 18).
Other HHK figures were more dismissive about the cooperation offer, with Galust Sahakian, the ruling party’s parliamentary leader, saying that it does not warrant “serious political conclusions” (Azg, November 17.) Razmik Zohrabian, an HHK deputy chairman, told Radio Free Europe on November 12 that Ter-Petrosian is simply “jealous” about Sargsyan’s rising international profile.
The Armenian leader will hardly share such simplistic views. Unlike the tough-talking and at times flamboyant Kocharian, he has proven willing to set aside bad blood and make tactical alliances with his detractors throughout his political career. Earning some kind of recognition from a shrewd and charismatic rival such as Ter-Petrosian is surely a temptation that Sargsyan might find too hard to resist.