Nearly one month after a bloody clash between police and opposition protestors, the Armenian government is betting on a newly formed coalition to restore political "stability" and "solidarity." But, with its protests continuing, the opposition insists that only policy and personnel changes can defuse the simmering crisis.
To outsiders, a political memorandum released March 21 seems to usher in an awkward coalition: the governing Republican Party of Armenia and pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party are being joined by two parties that were outspoken government critics during the recent election campaign - the Country of Law (Orinats Yerkir) Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) .
The government states that the partnership was formed based "on the results of the February 19, 2008, presidential election, pursuing the goal of ensuring progressive development of the Republic of Armenia." Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian and ARF senior member Vahan Hovhannisian finished third and fourth, respectively, in the presidential race. [For background see the special feature - Armenia: Vote 2008].
The coalition, which outgoing President Robert Kocharian supposedly helped establish, has stated in the memorandum that it plans to deepen "popular reforms," improve "mechanisms for human rights protection", oppose "foreign and domestic challenges to the Republic of Armenia," and implement "bold and realistic reforms.".
"Authorities are doing everything in order to establish stability in the country," said senior Republican Party MP Armen Ashotian. "Thanks to the coalition memorandum, other political forces have gathered around key issues."
Meanwhile, the opposition has continued to protest the election results and the March 1 violence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. So-called "silent protests" through downtown Yerevan have continued since March 21, when the government lifted Armenia's state of emergency. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who claims he won the February 19 vote, remains under house arrest, and scores of prominent opposition figures and activists remain in jail.
Without the release of these detainees and the end of "political persecutions," argues opposition Heritage Party parliamentarian Anahit Bakhshian, the government's memorandum is meaningless. "Based on its content, the memorandum is reassuring. When I read it, I thought that I would, too, wish to sign to such a memorandum," said Bakhshian. "The question, however, is whether or not they will be able to realize the points included in it. In this atmosphere ... there is still not the political will by which it will be possible to bring stability to the country."
Baghdasarian's participation in the coalition is a particularly sore point for government critics. Among many convinced Kocharian opponents, the 39-year-old former parliament speaker was long suspected of being a fair-weather politician. Prior to the presidential election, he seemed poised to join forces with Ter-Petrosian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. That he suddenly switched sides, accepting on February 29 an appointment as the chairman of the National Security Council, left many Ter-Petrosian supporters harboring feelings of enduring enmity for Baghdasarian.
Baghdasarian now is one of the government's biggest boosters. "There is . . . resolve on the part of the newly elected president [Serzh Sarkisian]," he said recently. "There is a desire, indeed, to make positive changes in the country."
For its part, the ARF of late has expressed similar admiration for Sarkisian's political skills, even though the ARF's own presidential candidate, Hovhannisian, earlier resigned as deputy parliamentary speaker in protest at alleged election violations.
Despite the appearance that unsavory political deals have been sealed, one independent political analyst contends that the coalition may in the end prove the right choice. "The coalition may have an inglorious end, or it may also [make] clear changes that will alleviate the current situation," observed Yervand Bozoian. "At present, perhaps it is not so important who signed the memorandum, as it is what the next steps and policy will be."
The protests leading up to the March 1 events, along with the more muted post-March 21 demonstrations, provide proof that thousands of Armenians are dissatisfied with the government, Bozoian continued. The key is whether the authorities can win over the discontented.
The government already has taken tentative steps to improve the social safety net. On March 20, for example, the cabinet announced plans to allocate roughly $400,000 to provide relief to distressed farmers. Ashotian, the Republican Party MP, said additional welfare measures will soon be taken. "The inauguration of the newly elected president will take place on April 9," Ashotian said. "And after that, the actions will become clearer."
During the presidential campaign, Sarkisian pledged that families' incomes "will at least double" under his administration, and that "newly formed" families "will have an opportunity to get an apartment and a car." Residents of Armenia's remote border villages, he claimed, will also be able to lead "a dignified life."
Government critics content that civil rights, not living standards are the primary concern of most Armenians. To stabilize the domestic political situation, argues the Heritage Party's Bakhshian, the country's leaders need to "change their attitudes and many officials at the top."
"However, we do not see a trend towards those changes right now," she said. "And, in this case, people cannot calmly wait."
Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.