By Vahan Dilanyan

Institute for War and Peace Reporting IWPR
March 28, 2011

Sense of being surrounded by threats impedes creation of fairer

Although there is still more than a year to go until the next
parliamentary election, opposition parties in Armenia are already
calling their followers onto the streets.

There is plenty of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo,
driven by rising prices and widespread poverty. But experts say the
scope for channelling that into real change is limited by Armenia's
difficult relationships abroad, which its current leaders can always
cite as justification for tough controls at home.

Armenia is still officially at war with Azerbaijan, and its troops
garrison the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorny Karabakh, so ruling
politicians can play the national security card if their authority is
threatened. This has allowed them to fend off demands for democratic

The government's authoritarian tendencies, and its insistence on
supporting Karabakh, has won support from big businesses keen to keep
their monopolies safe from the Azerbaijani and Turkish competitors
who might flood in if a peace deal was signed.

Opposition parties seeking to harness popular resentment of the
government believe there is a limit to what people will put up with
in the name of national security.

"One fine day, a people who have nothing to lose and who have been
driven to extreme suffering, might cease to care about the views of
opinion of parliament, and even about Karabakh," Armenian National
Congress, ANC, leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan told a rally of supporters
last month.

Experts say, however, that most people are not prepared to abandon
their fellow-Armenians in Karabakh, and fear a possible repeat of
the conflict with Azerbaijan. This plays into the government's hands.

"It's clear the Armenian public has a keen sense of the danger of new
war with Azerbaijan. That means that both the public and the opposition
are more restrained than they might be], and that citizens have to
opt for political stability over democratisation in many areas," Garik
Keryan, head of politics in Yerevan State University's international
relations faculty, said.

Commentators say the government tolerates political freedoms as long
as they do not interfere with its grip on power, while the opposition
movement remains divided among competing personalities. People who
attend opposition protests are often there because they are against
the government rather than actively drawn to the opposition.

Ter-Petrosyan's ANC fails to make much ground because he alienated
many people in his time as Armenian president in the 1990s.

"Look what this government has driven me to. I have a law degree and
I'm driving a taxi. They're forcing people to team up with Levon,"
Artur, a 29-year-old Yerevan resident said. "I remember the days of
Levon's government - it was terrible then. But what else can you do?

These politicians are just humiliating us."

Ter-Petrosyan has ruled out a swift attempt to win power, comparing
his political strategy to a game of chess. That has led many analysts
to argue that he is not interested in changing the political set-up
radically, just in putting himself and his followers at the head of it.

Political battles in Armenia are often more about competing individuals
than different ideologies.

"The ANC probably a few tens of thousands of supporters, and the
Heritage party has fewer, since it isn't as well-organised," public
relations expert Samvel Martirosyan said. "Heritage more closely
resembles a collection of individuals."

The divisions among opposition groups were graphically evident on
March 17, when Ter-Petrosyan was taking part in a protest meeting
in central Yerevan and went past Heritage leader Raffi Hovhannisyan
without acknowledging the fact that the latter had been staging a
hunger strike for the past two days.

Arman Vardanyan, chairman of the Union of Young Politicians of Armenia,
said recent remarks made by Ter-Petrosyan, 66, might indicate he was
considering stepping down as ANC leader. But finding a replacement
of similar standing would be difficult.

"Ter-Petrosyan was making it plain he didn't intend to stand in the
next [2013] presidential election. But in my opinion, no newcomer
is going to be able to present a serious challenge to the current
president, Serzh Sargsyan," Vardanyan said.

He predicted that the ANC would win around 25 per cent of the seats
in parliament in the May 2012 election, while the Heritage Party and
Dashnakutsyun, a party now in opposition but formerly part of the
ruling coalition, would probably struggle to surpass the five per
cent threshold needed to gain any seats at all.

The result, Vardanyan said, would be that the ruling coalition would
maintain its grip on power, and there would be little progress towards
a more democratic system.

Keryan ascribes Armenia's failure to build a more open political
system in the two decades since independence to economic problems,
the Karabakh war and its legacy of isolation in the region, and the
continuing influence of Russia.

"For 20 years, Armenia has seen its security as depending on its
strategic partnership with Russia," he said. "This could change only
if there were major geopolitical changes in the region, and those
changes haven't happened."

Last year, the two countries agreed to extend the stay of Russian
troops in Armenia. An official strategy paper on national security
reaffirms that a continued Russian presence in the South Caucasus
is crucial for Armenia. While the document also talks about greater
cooperation with NATO members, most analysts say the authorities
would never stray too far from Moscow.

Meanwhile, a rapprochement with Turkey which has emerged over recent
years appears to have ground to a halt.

With no change to the external environment, observers say there is
little impetus to move away from the current system dominated by a
small political elite and by oligarchs with vested economic interests.

"There is a privileged caste which is not only able to bypass the law
but which uses the state to pursue its own ends," Arman Rustamyan,
a member of parliament from the opposition Dashnakutsyun party, said.

Hovsep Khurshudyan, an expert from the Armenian Centre for National
and International Studies, said that despite the government's declared
intention of pursuing reforms, "the economy remains in the hands of
a few families which also have political influence".

"The government is unable to force the big oligarchs to pay taxes, so
it's forced to place the whole tax burden on small and medium-sized
businesses and on ordinary citizens, who will soon refuse to put up
with this, or will emigrate," Khurshudyan added.

Vazgen Manoukyan, who heads of the Public Council, a government
advisory body set up by President Sargsyan in 2009, told IWPR that
while Armenia had a democratic constitution, there were problems in
practice with elections, freedom of speech and the judicial system.

"The parliamentary and presidential elections of 1990 and 1991 were
democratic, but 1995 and 1996 saw a huge step backwards, and the
tradition of electoral fraud has continued since then, albeit with
some modification," he said.

Manoukyan said free speech was marred by the removal of the A1+ TV
channel from the airwaves some years ago, the judicial system was
far from perfect, and economic domination by the oligarchs had curbed
both market competition and the growth of democratic institutions.

Vahan Dilanyan is a freelance reporter in Armenia.

From: A. Papazian