Armenia’s Shifting Poltical Landscape

BY LIZ FULLER and HARRY TAMRZIAN From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty For more than six years–Armenia’s ruling Armenian National Movement has dominated politics in that country. But in recent months–splits within the movement have become increasingly apparent–prompting leaders of the movement to concede it no longer qualifies as a ruling party.

The ANM was created in 1989 from the Karabakh Committee–set up by a handful of Armenian academics the previous year–to coordinate Armenian support for the drive by the predominantly ethnic Armenian population of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to achieve unification with Armenia. The movement obtained a majority in the post-communist Supreme Soviet elected in the summer of 1990–and its leader–Levon Ter-Petrosyan–was elected president the fall of the following year.

Although popular support for the Armenian leadership plummeted between 1992 and 1994 as a result of economic collapse–successive attempts by opposition parties–including the Union for National Self-Determination–headed by veteran dissident Paruir Hairikyan–and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manoukian’s National Democratic Union–to create a lasting opposition coalition failed. The only serious threat to the ANM was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Banned by Ter-Petrosyan in December 1994 for alleged involvement in terrorist activities–the ARF was unable to field candidates in the July 1995 parliamentary elections.

The Republic bloc–comprising the ANM and four smaller parties–won 114 of the 190 seats in the new parliament. But the ban on the ARF–in conjunction with violations of voting procedure–led some opposition politicians to question the legality of the poll. Rouben Mirzakhanyan–chairman of the Ramgavar party–argued that the ANM’s hold on power rested on an elaborate network of patron-client relationships permeating the national and local governmen’s as well as the police. In December–1995–Ter-Petrosyan appeared to be distancing himself from the ANM–which–he said–should form the nucleus of a broader right-wing party.

The disputed presidential poll of September 1996–in which Ter-Petrosyan was narrowly re-elected with 51.75 percent of the vote–served to split the ANM into two camps: the "bureaucrats" grouped around former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan–former national security adviser Davit Shahnazaryan–and parliamentary legal affairs committee chairman Eduard Yegoryan; and powerful shadow economic interest groups backed by former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian (now mayor of Yerevan) and Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsyan.

Two months ago–political forces began to realign after it became apparent that the president might consider dissolving the current parliament and holding early parliamentary elections.

In early April–Ter-Petrosyan initiated talks with ARF representatives–which observers in Yerevan predict will culminate in that party’s re-legalization. If that happens–the ARF could once again emerge as the strongest opposition party.

In late May–Hairikyan announced that he no longer recognizes Vazgen Manoukian as leader of the opposition National Alliance created in September 1996 to support Manoukian’s presidential candidacy. Also in late May–Bagratyan–whose aggressive free-market policies earned him the nickname of the "Armenian Gaidar," launched his own liberal political party–Azatutyun–liberty. Several ranking members of the ANM have already defected to that party–while Hairikyan and other opposition leaders have also indicated they are willing to cooperate with the liberals.

On May 30–the Yerevan branch of the ANM met to prepare for the movement’s congress to be held in June. Some members may break away at that meeting to align themselves either with the liberals or conceivably even with Manoukian. Many of the movement’s leaders have expressed concern that the ANM has lost its political clout and can no longer be considered the ruling party. Some have suggested that they may seek a vote of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Robert Kocharian–the former president of Nagorno-Karabakh–who is not an ANM member. Such a move would bring the ANM into open conflict with Ter-Petrosyan.

In an implicit challenge to the president to choose to side with either the ANM or the prime minister–parliament deputy speaker and ranking ANM member Ara Sahakian told the ANM’s newspaper Haik on June 3 that the chairman of the ruling party should be Ter-Petrosyan. Observers in Yerevan suggest that a conflict between the ANM and Kocharian is inevitable–particularly since the latter’s campaign to wipe out tax evasion is likely to impact on the economic interests of many ANM members. But the strong backing Kocharian enjoys both from Ter-Petrosyan and from the ARF makes him the probable victor. And since Ter-Petrosyan has stressed he will not seek a third term as president–Kocharian is well placed to succeed him in the 2001 elections.

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