Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 4

“Velvet Coup” promises sweeping changes in Armenia

By Emil Danielyan

The abrupt resignation of Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrossian promises to have far-reaching effects both for Armenia’s internal politics and for the conflict over the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR). While it is likely to toughen Armenia’s position in its ten-year conflict with Azerbaijan, it may also present Armenia with fresh opportunities for internal democratization.

On February 3, Ter-Petrossian announced that he was resigning as president, blaming what he said was pressure from government opponents led by Prime Minister Robert Kocharian. Ter-Petrossian called his resignation a temporary defeat for "the party of honorable peace" in Armenia. "Only time will tell who wants to sell out Karabakh and who really cares about its people," he declared.

The announcement ended a serious political crisis provoked by inner-governmental disagreements over the "phased" peace plan proposed by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Under that plan, discussion of the disputed enclave’s status would have been put on the back burner while Karabakh Armenians withdrew from the six occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper.

Premier Kocharian, Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian supported the NKR in its rejection of the phased approach. They argued that the OSCE’s plan was too dangerous for the Armenian side. Once Azerbaijan regained its lost territories, they said, it would be tempted to solve the conflict by force. They urged the Minsk Group to return to its earlier "package" approach, involving a single comprehensive accord on all contentious issues.

Ter-Petrossian, on the other hand, supported the package approach on the grounds that measures such as troop withdrawal and the lifting of Azerbaijan’s blockade on Armenia would build confidence and facilitate future negotiations over tough questions such as the status of the disputed territory. But, as Ter-Petrossian acknowledged when he announced his resignation, the dispute over the plan concealed more fundamental differences within the Armenian leadership. Unlike Kocharian and his ministerial colleagues, Ter-Petrossian believes that the status quo is prejudicial to Armenia’s long-term interests: Ter-Petrossian argues that economic prosperity will forever elude energy-starved Armenia until it reaches a lasting peace with its oil-rich neighbor, Azerbaijan. As a result, Ter-Petrossian tends to support the idea of Karabakh’s return to Azerbaijani rule, albeit with a high degree of autonomy including its own armed forces and an officially recognized land corridor with Armenia.

Kocharian and his colleagues, along with the leaders of the NKR, rule out the NKR’s "vertical subordination" to Baku. Kocharian has said a confederation in which Azerbaijan and Karabakh were equal entities is the maximum concession the Armenian side is ready to make.

The showdown between these two camps was precipitated in late January by a series of armed attacks on top government officials. Within the space of three days, the presidential security chief, the head of a Yerevan administrative district and the commander of Armenia’s interior troops all came under fire from unknown gunmen. The pro-presidential Armenian Pan-National Movement (APNM) blamed the attacks on "paralysis of the executive branch" and hinted that it might seek Kocharian’s resignation. Kocharian’s government hit back, with Defense Minister Sarkisian accusing the APNM of staging the attacks in an effort to undermine Kocharian. And, although Sarkisian did not directly implicate Ter-Petrossian, the Defense Minister indicated that neither he nor the other "force" ministers would step down even if the president ordered them to. The APNM backed off and abandoned its apparent attempt to take over the government. This did not satisfy the Kocharian camp, as subsequent developments soon showed.

There followed a skillful process of gradually stripping Ter-Petrossian of the levers of power. Within a matter of two weeks, the president lost almost all his loyal supporters in the executive. Among key Ter-Petrossian allies who are believed to have been forced to resign were Yerevan mayor and APNM chairman Vano Siradeghian, Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, and Central Bank chairman Bagrat Asatrian. Arzumanian’s ouster deprived the president of a key supporter of his Karabakh policy. The process culminated in mass defections from the APNM-controlled parliamentary majority to the rival Yerkrapah ["defenders of the country"] faction, led by Karabakh war veterans.

In the end, Ter-Petrossian preferred resignation to being left a powerless leader. Ironically, he was deposed by those who had secured his controversial reelection in September 1996. It was the two Sarkisians who ordered armed Yerkrapah members onto the streets of Yerevan to quell opposition protests over the vote rigging that had allegedly secured Ter-Petrossian’s reelection for a second term. And it was the president’s lack of legitimacy that, in 1998, prevented Ter-Petrossian from rallying the support of the population against the defiant ministers. The "velvet coup" revealed the flawed nature of the political order established by Ter-Petrossian during his seven years in power. The drift away from democracy that began in 1994 proved his undoing. The APNM-led Republic bloc, which he had hoped would become a powerful center-right force, had become increasingly dominated by people of convenience (among them many former Communists). These people had had nothing to do with the democratic movement that began in 1988 and that brought Ter-Petrossian to power in 1990. Little wonder that the Republic bloc’s parliamentary supporters shrank by half overnight.

Ter-Petrossian’s failure to adhere to the principle of free and fair elections deprived him of a democratic framework within which to promote his ideas on Karabakh. As soon as his military and law-enforcement entourage felt that he had made too many concessions, it deserted him and he was left without support. The fact that the Armenian opposition, the Kocharian government and the NKR largely agree over a negotiating strategy testifies that Armenian society is not willing to forego the fruits of a military victory even for the sake of promised prosperity. For all its suffering and hardship, the Karabakh war has helped Armenians overcome the inferiority complex accumulated during centuries of defeat and foreign oppression. As a result, the new leadership agrees with the opposition that Armenia is not in such desperate straits that it need make "unilateral" concessions. In their view, Azerbaijan is equally interested in peace in order to implement its multibillion-dollar oil contracts.

As far as the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is concerned, Armenia and the NKR will insist that the Minsk Group come up with a new "package" plan. It remains to be seen how the Group’s Russian, American and French co-chairs will react to that. They are expected to gather in mid-February to discuss what to do next. The positions of the two Armenian entities are likely to be close together. The fact that both Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian come from Karabakh is likely to forge a further link between Yerevan and Stepanakert. There has been speculation both in the West and in Azerbaijan that Ter-Petrossian’s resignation increases the likelihood that war will be resumed. But this seems unlikely, given that none of the warring sides is for the moment interested in war. A more likely option is that, following Armenian demands for a "package" settlement, the peace process will be delayed for a few months.

One possibility that cannot be excluded is that the hard-line takeover of the government will pave the way for Armenia’s further democratization. The initial signs are encouraging. Kocharian has pledged that the presidential election scheduled for March 16 will be free and fair. During the past two weeks, he has been engaged in consultations with the main opposition parties, a move unthinkable for Ter-Petrossian. Kocharian appears to understand that consolidation of democracy will strengthen Armenia’s position in the international arena in general and in the Karabakh peace process in particular. He wants to acquire legitimacy, the lack of which cost his predecessor his post. Even more to the point, Kocharian has a good chance of winning a democratic ballot. He will not face a united opposition, as Ter-Petrossian did in September 1996. In fact, Kocharian has borrowed a lot from the campaign agenda of his main rival Vazgen Manukian: democracy, national unity, a firm stand on Karabakh, and a crackdown on corruption. Kocharian may well, therefore, rally a broad coalition behind him. He has already re-legalized the Dashnak Party and released their leaders from jail. With the Dashnaks backing his candidacy, Kocharian’s campaign will get a strong boost.

One weakness of Kocharian is that he does not project the vision and charisma that Manukian commands. Kocharian’s quiet and modest manner may be overshadowed by Manukian’s oratorical skills. Manukian has another advantage, namely, the strong grassroots structures of his National Democratic Union, which comprise many ordinary people wholeheartedly loyal to their candidate. Kocharian will be supported by local authorities and state propaganda, but this could backfire: their clumsy intervention proved counterproductive for Ter-Petrossian in the 1996 election.

Other observers warn, however, that Armenia may drift further away from democracy. They point to the growing influence of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, who has been markedly unenthusiastic about a democratic system of government. These fears are at present dispelled by the optimistic mood among the opposition parties, inclined to believe that sweeping changes will finally give them a stake in the new political order. Campaign coverage by state TV and radio is indicative of those changes. Many Armenians were pleasantly surprised to find that the state media stopped their extremely biased coverage of opposition-related events the day after Ter-Petrossian stepped down. Another troubled election would have a devastating effect on Armenia. And Kocharian, a clever and shrewd man, appears to realize that.

Emil Danielyan is a political scientist and freelance writer in Yerevan.


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