Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008: Reflections on an Impasse

2008: Reflections on an Impasse

The turn of a new year marks the end of some of the most troubled, and troubling, months in what is already a very tumultuous recent history in Armenia. At least 10 are dead, and multitudes beaten, including journalists, with no one to answer. Over 70 activists remain imprisoned. The government continues to work towards a resolution to the Karabagh issue, being targeted from all sides by powers who seek to instill their own gain in the negotiations, and under the watchful eyes of those who disagree with the fundamental approach and question the motivation of the effort in light of the continuing oppression in the country. Armenia is starting 2009 with more questions, rifts and bruises than any in recent history. And yet, it is difficult to say how Armenia, and we as Armenians, will be able to move Armenia out of this impasse.

Before proceeding, though, it is important to establish the basic foundation upon which this impasse rests. Namely, that the February election was quite clearly neither free nor fair. This fact can hardly be denied by the authorities themselves or some of their most fervent allies. Both the Rule of Law party (OYP) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation ("ARF" or "Dashnaktsutiun") made it absolutely clear immediately after the election that what had taken place was a fraud on the electorate. Just one day after the election, Vahan Hovannisian, the ARF presidential candidate, resigned from his position as Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, and referred to "an atmosphere of intolerance, hatred, intimidation and threats" throughout the pre-election period, as well as numerous violations and irregularities during the election itself. Arthur Baghdassarian, the leader of OYP, had lambasted the authorities with grave charges of mismanagement and corruption in an interview conducted from his home just a few weeks prior to the election, and subsequently charged the authorities with having leveled death threats against him.

The fact that the OYP and the ARF changed their tune and became part of the coalition government was, quite frankly, less a change of heart and more a matter of political convenience, or opportunism, depending on ones vantage point. For Baghdassarian, being part of the coalition government could provide leverage for his already faint OYP, and the post of Chairman of the National Security Council was at least one better than what was being offered to Levon Ter-Petrosian, a robbed and ransacked presidential election. For the ARF, this was an opportunity to engage in carrot-and-stick diplomacy. Immediately following the elections it was apparent that the authorities would desperately attempt to put together a coalition government, and if the ARF could become the hinge that holds the pieces together, its bargaining position would be greatly enhanced.

But the elections were just the beginning. To further add to the troubles of having ascended to power in a less than flattering manner, the president-elect was taxed with his predecessor's response to the protests following the election. Thousands of peaceful protestors were dispersed by baton wielding riot police and special military forces in the early morning hours of March 1st, resulting in at least ten deaths and hundreds of serious injuries sustained by those who simply dared voice an opinion contrary to the state. In the course of a week, thousands were detained and hundreds arrested on political grounds. The State of Emergency imposed following March 1st further widened the gap between president-elect Sargsian from his supposed constituency. A man who just a year prior was widely considered to be the only logical choice for president was now faced with having to account for his legitimacy.

So once sworn in, president Sargsian had to act. In the months immediately after the elections, numerous dismissals and new appointments were made, and there is a continuous shifting of positions to this day. Tigran Sarkisian, a widely respected economist who differs both in substance and form from what has become the norm in the Armenian political arena, was appointed Prime Minister. Two experienced appointments were quick to follow: Edward Nalbandian as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Seyran Ohanian as Minister of Defense. Next, both the heads of customs and the tax authority, individuals who had earned themselves reputations as two of the most corrupt officials in Armenia, were dismissed, and ambitious reforms in both fields were implemented to ensure compliance. According to the authorities, a major obstacle of internal governance was corruption, which, they vowed, would be eradicated on their watch. Most recently, Hovik Abrahamyan, aka "Muk", was elected President of the National Assembly. "Forward, Armenia!"

And in the first few months, eyebrows of the audience of this macabre drama were raised at the promises and shifts in government. Did the new coalition government appear to be making strides forward? Were these appointments and adjustments a manifestation of real change, or simply cosmetics in hopes of assuaging the public at large and the international community? Was the new administration in fact different from its preceding one? The answers, of course, lie in the authorities handling of the political state of affairs, internal and external, since February 19. It quickly became obvious to all those informed that these steps amounted to a square dance, a self perpetuating, repeating pattern of the old government, perhaps with slight adjustments. After those first few months, it became clear that even if the new president wanted to dig a new track for himself, there were powers making it extremely difficult for him to do so. And, in a sense, the opposition's existence today equates to a mirror being held up to the coalition government; the extent of their sincerity in implementing reforms is directly reflected in that mirror.

Both the authorities and their allies have consistently charged Ter-Petrossyan and his supporters with treason. The basic argument posed is quite reasonable; political discontent should be expressed through political means that do not pose a violent threat to legitimate governance. Otherwise, naturally, any internal challenge to the rule of law is necessarily a national security threat to the state, as well. Therefore, claim these gentlemen, Ter-Petrossyan's continued insistence on holding "illegal" rallies and calls for the resignation of the current authorities hinders governance and jeopardizes national security.

So what are these political means? In a democracy, one usually depends on the different branches of government to provide the essential balance necessary to protect against tyranny. The legislature makes the laws, the executive implements such laws, and the judiciary upholds them. The system is sustained by the independence of these three branches from one another. That is, in order to maintain the proper functionality of the system, none of these three branches should, ideally, become dependent on any of the others. Furthermore, democratic legislatures contain rival factions that counterbalance one another. As such, representation in the legislature becomes a direct reflection of the general electorate's political partiality, providing dissenting voices with an opportunity to be heard.

It would be comical to suggest that the judiciary in Armenia exercises independent discretion. Quite frankly, when the executive branch says jump, Armenia's judiciary seems to be all too happy to quickly inquire, "Just how high?" This is evidenced by the verdicts that are being read in courtrooms across Armenia against the political prisoners that were rounded up within the course of a couple of weeks after the elections. In fact, the one time that a member of the judiciary attempted to interpret the law in light of his professional judgment (and, at the time, the only time a judge decided against the state), he was rebuked and dismissed by then president Kocharian, who, apparently, had a better understanding of the law despite his lack of a legal education. Looking at the courtrooms themselves is the best gauge of whether there is an independent judiciary. Gagik Jahangiryan continues today to use legal arguments, citing article after article against his prosecutor, in a courtroom that seems to be writing its own constitution. The sentencing of Ashot Manukyan to 5 years in prison for throwing a rock at a policeman's foot is yet another example. Note that, not a single individual, uniformed or otherwise, who fired a bullet has been put on trial yet.

And then there's the 131 member National Assembly. While in most democracies the National Assembly fairly resembles the political divisions in society, Armenia's National Assembly only contains six opposition representatives, all members of the Heritage faction. Furthermore, even the mere expression of dissent seemed to upset then President of the National Assembly, Tigran Torosyan, and the dominant faction he represented, the Republican Party of Armenia. Immediately following the events of March 1st, Mr. Torosyan gave an empassioned speech as to why immunity should be suspended for certain lawmakers who sympathized with the opposition. And now, Mr. Abrahamyan has taken Mr. Torosyan's place.

In light of all this, just how do the authorities suggest that the opposition, or anyone else for that matter, resort to "political means" in an attempt to have their concerns addressed? But before attempting to answer this question, let us reflect upon some of the valid criticisms levied against Ter-Petrossyan and his opposition movement. Yes, the opposition did, briefly in its inception, resort to certain populistic tendencies in an attempt to gain political leverage against the current authorities. Yes, Levon Ter-Petrossyan's rhetoric did in fact take a somewhat negative turn during the presidential campaign, and it may have indeed incited anger and maybe even hatred towards the current authorities. And in light of all this, yes, the contentions that Ter-Petrossyan contributed to the dangerous divide in society we observed post March 1st are at least understandable.

That said, the fact of the matter remains that there are no political means available whatsoever to the opposition, and to suggest otherwise is attributable to either intentional misrepresentation or ignorance. Furthermore, it would be too foolish to consider Ter-Petrossyan, or the opposition movement for that matter, as sole players in bringing about the societal division experienced. The Kocharian-Sargsian duo should at least claim some responsibility for this divide. While March 1st served as the catalyst to the realization of this division, the seeds were planted much earlier, and could not have started or developed without the help of the ruling duo, and the growing corruption and mismanagement of the past ten years. The events of that fateful day were merely the release of the tensions that had been building due to the inequalities and hypocrisies that had manifested themselves in almost all sectors of the Kocharian-Sargsian government.

Then there's the issue of the political prisoners. President Sargsian could have set in motion a new era in Armenian politics and salvaged his legitimacy by releasing the political prisoners upon taking office. Even the opposition acknowledged that the new president was presented with the opportunity to distance himself from his predecessor by releasing the over 100 captives who had been detained because of their political views. Sadly, this was not to be. More than nine months later, Representative Hastings' words ring as true today as the day they were spoken to Vigen Sargsian in Washington: "And if…you tell me that there are no political prisoners, then I will tell you that you are out of your ever-loving mind. Because there are."

Nevertheless, while Yerevan continues to boil with friction, "Forward, Armenia." Contracts surfaced with a Washington based public relations firm with directions of making Armenia appear more democratic; a new ministerial post was erected by president Sargsian to deal with Diasporan affairs; Turkey's Gul was invited to Armenia to watch a soccer game with the president in hopes improving relations with Turkey; Foreign Minister Nalbandian signed a non-proliferation agreement with the United States; Headways are made on the Kharabagh front with the Moscow Declaration…

These cosmetic reforms and refusal to acknowledge the state of affairs only contributes further to the notion that the new administration is simply a continuation of the former. The presence of Armen Gevorkyan, the replacement of Tigran Torosyan by Hovik Abrahamyan, two key figures in the Kocharyan administration, reinforce this perspective. President Sargsyan need not spend hundreds of thousands on making Armenia appear more democratic when he in fact has an opportunity to make Armenia more democratic. If we understand the concept of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs correctly, than a ministerial post dealing with Diasporan affairs seem to be a pacifier of sorts tossed at certain Diasporan entities to win their passive acceptance. What is the rationale of publicly displaying Armenia's "benevolence" by extending an invitation to our neighbor Turkey (criticized by the ARF, a member of the ruling coalition) through a public medium across the Atlantic, the Washington Post? Is there truly headway on the Kharabagh issue, as there continues to be an undercurrent of unprecedented secrecy to the negotiations and strong opposition to what amounts, in the eyes of some, to the selling of Kharabagh. In fact, almost every one of these so-called advances is wrought with doubt, and potentially concerning motivations.

We do not believe ourselves too incredulous in surmising that the president was less concerned with soccer diplomacy, and more with seeming an able and ready communicator and compromiser of sorts. While this in itself is a noble objective, it is nonetheless something he has not been with the very opposition the current administration continues to repress. Besides, has the president forgotten that both he and his predecessor vehemently condemned Ter-Petrossyan for suggesting that relations with Turkey should be improved? Are not the terms that current administration is willing to accept for the resolution of the Kharabagh conflict essentially similar, if not the same or even worse, to those proposed by Ter-Petrossyan ten years ago?

The authorities' manipulation of the crisis in Georgia was no less indicative of just what this particular regime is concerned with – cementing its legitimacy while simultaneously silencing the opposition. Prime Minister Sarkisian, in a televised address, warned the public that opposition to the authorities in volatile "times like these" would undermine Armenia's geopolitical positioning and further encourage Azerbaijan's rhetorical tirade. Furthermore, since politics has no place in academia, the premier continued, he was urging the Ministry of Education to strictly prohibit educators throughout Armenia from bringing their political views into their classrooms. Mr. Sarkisan, of course, did not mean for this to include educators who pander to the authorities, but rather those few who being fed up with the amoral and baseless state of affairs may from time to time express dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

We are not blind followers of the opposition or its de facto leader, Ter-Petrosyan. Nevertheless, we find it impossible to tolerate the current authorities' continued push to create an environment dominated by intimidation, lies, and the suppression of various fundamental human rights.

We hope the best for Armenia, and her people, for the New Year.

Save Armenia Action Group [SAAG]

Tzizternak []

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it will get worst before it gets any better, especially with WW3 coming in 2012