The Armenian opposition is growing frustrated with the European Union's apparent reluctance to press hard for political reform in Yerevan. Opposition leaders now regard the United States as the only potential source of external support for their efforts to force President Robert Kocharian's resignation and to open Armenia's political system.
One prominent oppositionist spoke for many of his colleagues recently when he said privately, "The world has only one boss, and you know what that country is."
The opposition mood has been reinforced by the EU's effective decision not to set specific political conditions for Armenia's participation in its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP)-- a program that envisages privileged ties with the expanding union. Armenia as well as neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia were included in the program last June in a move which heralded a deeper EU involvement in the South Caucasus.
The ENP, also known as "Wider Europe," offers participating nations extensive cooperation in political, security and economic matters without the prospect of EU membership. Easier access to the EU's vast and affluent internal market of more than 450 million consumers is arguably the most tangible benefit offered under the program.
The three South Caucasus states are expected to negotiate individual "action plans" with the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, by the end of this year. Earlier in March, the European Commission released "country reports" on each of the ex-Soviet republics that will form the basis of those action plans.
The 30-page report on Armenia stresses a need for democratic elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights and further economic reforms, but does not obligate Kocharian to achieve those objectives. There is only a fleeting and cautiously worded reference to Armenia's post-Soviet history of fraudulent parliamentary and presidential elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Opposition parties are maintaining a boycott of parliament, protesting what they maintain were rigged legislative elections in 2003 [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, chronic human rights abuses and curbs on press freedom are only briefly mentioned. The report, by contrast, is more specific on other issues, such as veterinary safety and technical standards for industrial products.
"I think that European structures, and the EU in particular, must get tougher on the Armenian authorities for their failure to respect the basic principles of democracy and human rights," Victor Dallakian, a leading member of Armenia's biggest opposition alliance, the Justice bloc, told EurasiaNet. "I think a tougher approach will be more productive than allowing the illegitimate regime to imitate democratization and human rights protection."
"Their indifferent attitude toward us, which is exposed by this document, may not be justified but it is absolutely natural because Armenia is of little interest to EU countries," he added.
Dallakian and other opposition leaders are particularly upset with the EU's failure to react to the Armenian government's crackdown on the opposition during anti-Kocharian street protests last spring. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The crackdown involved mass arrests, ransacking of opposition offices and the forceful break-up of a demonstration in Yerevan. Both the United States and the Council of Europe were critical of the Armenian government's handling of the protests. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, which strongly condemned "the cycle of repression," slammed the EU last January for failing to "publicly encourage human rights improvements" in Armenia.
The EU countries' approach appeared to have been summed up by an official from the EU's Tbilisi-based regional representation at a recent seminar in Yerevan. "Armenia is a newly independent state and we can't expect it to have a perfect record," Alexis Loiber said. When asked about the success story of the ex-Soviet Baltic states that also won independence in 1991 and are now considered established democracies, he replied: "They are in a different part of the world and in very different conditions."
Such an attitude all but precludes European support for opposition hopes of launching a mass-protest movement that produces political change emulating Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004. Opposition leaders, who are equally unhappy with the Council of Europe's refusal to sanction Yerevan, now feel that if there is any Western backing for regime change in Armenia it will come from Washington.
This impression is fueling pro-American sentiment among the Armenian oppositionists. Artashes Geghamian, who leads another major opposition force, the National Unity Party, is perhaps the most vivid embodiment of this phenomenon. Geghamian, who was calling for Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus union as recently as two years ago, told hundreds of supporters in February that the United States "must be the main pillar of the democratization and strengthening of the Republic of Armenia."
It remains open to question whether the United States will respond to overtures from the Armenian opposition. The US government lent little support to the opposition-led protest movement last spring and has not given any indications of a policy shift. Some observers doubt that Washington would be willing to undercut Kocharian now that there are fresh hopes for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a key US goal in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kocharian himself has also engaged the Bush administration in recent months, while putting a little distance between his administration and Armenia's traditional ally, Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some American political analysts say Kocharian is currying the Bush administration's favor in large measure to guard against Washington's potential support for regime change in Armenia. Others argue it would be a mistake for Washington to back a renewed opposition campaign to force Kocharian from power, as such action would merely push the Armenian president back firmly into Russia's geopolitical sphere.
The "pro-America" phenomenon spreading in Armenia's broader political elite is driven by the growing impression that Russia's influence in the South Caucasus is withering, and that the United States will soon be the dominant regional power, a commentary in the Yerevan newspaper Iravunk suggested. "Both within the government and opposition camps there is now no lack of forces making overtures to the USA in their public speeches," said the March 22 commentary. "It is clear to everybody that the superpower's [US] position in our region will increasingly strengthen. So everybody is seeking to be friends with the future master."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.