Nearly eight months after Armenia's presidential election, Yerevan cars may still fly the national tricolor to show support for ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, but the opposition's recent decision to call a temporary halt to rallies suggests that its appeal is sagging, some observers believe.
At an October 17 rally in downtown Yerevan, Ter-Petrosian cited the need to support the government in talks with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as the reason for the decision to stop the protests, ongoing since Armenia's February presidential vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The suspension of the rallies and the marches does not mean that the movement gives up its political struggle and the demands made with it," Ter-Petrosian told demonstrators.
One independent political analyst, however, argued that a better-organized and mobilized opposition would not have needed to take a break. "In this situation, when the authorities are taking active steps in the foreign policy domain and making the opposition weaker, it is important what stance the opposition leaders will have," said Yervand Bozoian. "Had the opposition had clear programs, I think it would not have to take a break. I think they made wrong calculations and the statement that they're taking a break for awhile because of foreign tensions is not that convincing."
The "clear action plan" promised by Ter-Petrosian a few days after the February 19 election has not yet surfaced, leaving some to wonder if the opposition is fragmented, or just cannot come up with concrete policy proposals. More than 120 opposition activists and supporters still remain in jail after the March 2008 crackdown on protestors, while police remain on watch at Yerevan's Liberty Square, the opposition's traditional gathering place.
Nikol Pashinian, the editor-in-chief of the largest and best-selling opposition daily, Haykakan Zhamanak, and, along with Ter-Petrosian, a driving force behind the opposition rallies, has gone into hiding abroad. He now encourages supporters via a series of articles and editorials.
With the start of construction on an underground parking garage for Liberty Square, though, some supporters believe that the government has gotten a permanent jump on Ter-Petrosian's movement and its rallies. The construction will last two years; the city government has denied, however, that the project is intended to block protests.
For many Armenians, the opposition's rallies have failed to produce results. "To be frank, I don't understand why so many people lost their lives. What is this struggle for?" asked one Yerevan cab driver about the eight people who died in the March 2008 clash between protestors and police. "People had such great expectations, but the victory promised by the opposition appears to have remained only an unfulfilled promise."
Yerevan engineer Mkrtich Hakobian counters that eight months is too short a time period to realize any of those expectations. "Society wants a power change very quickly, but politicians are there for providing realistic solutions to emerging problems based on pragmatism," said Hakobian, who took part in the October 17 rally.
Meanwhile, President Serzh Sargsyan's administration has exhibited policy pragmatism designed to prevent the opposition from gaining traction. For example, reforms have been launched in customs and tax administration, while Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh Sargsyan) declared an official campaign against corruption, leading to the firing of several senior officials.
Yet that pragmatism has its limits. No dialogue between the opposition and the government has yet taken place, and the general level of democracy in Armenia, according to international organizations, remains questionable.
Senior Ter-Petrosian supporter Suren Sureniants argues that a strong public desire for democratic change does, in fact, exist; it all comes down to tactics, he adds. "Tactics need to be developed on a day-to-day basis, hour by hour, and this is being done. In the coming months, I think, we will witness the opposition's materialization."
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.