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Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010

The Armenian opposition has rarely been a united force. Divided by personalities as well as politics, the country’s opposition has perpetually been splintered by both the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and by the faded but still potent figure of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the former President and leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK).

All parties in Armenia, including the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), face a difficult choice on their policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh. Wider geopolitical events have made the gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the surrounding districts of Azerbaijan almost inevitable, at some point in the near future. Realising which way the winds are blowing, some politicians have acknowledged the need for compromise, hoping to appear statesmanlike. However, Karabakh is such an emotive issue that calling for concessions is risky; appeals to nationalism are often the safer course.

Mr Ter-Petrosian has taken both approaches in recent months; the government, and his fellow oppositionists, have predictably lambasted him for both. His more ‘natural’ pragmatism was displayed on July 17th: at a HAK meeting, Mr Ter-Petrosian said that “[w]ithout settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkish-Armenian relations Armenia has no prospect of security, economic development and an improved demographic situation” (Armenia Liberty, July 17).

He also explicitly recognised the linkage between the rapprochement with Turkey and a settlement in Karabakh.

Depending on one’s perspective, his comments were either a realistic assessment of the facts or an outright betrayal. The ruling HHK’s reaction was mixed. The deputy speaker of Parliament Samvel Nikoyan echoed Mr Ter-Petrosian’s own earlier criticism of the government’s stance - “This statement and logic undermine Armenia’s defense capability,” said Mr Nikoyan (Armenia Liberty, July 26).

However, one of the ruling party’s deputy chairmen on August 2 insisted that Mr Ter-Petrosian’s speech was, by failing to directly attack the government, a sign of moderation. Alarmingly, Razmik Zohrabian said that this new stance could lead to “protection from society and the authorities” – implying that more forthright opposition would lead to withdrawal of this ‘protection’.

In any case, Mr Ter-Petrosian had plenty of critics from within the ranks of the opposition. The Heritage Party declared his speech “dangerous”; the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) called it “defeatist”. A senior Heritage official weighed in with an oblique attack shortly afterwards, warning that any settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh which resulted in a withdrawal from the occupied regions of Azerbaijan would result in “regime change” in Armenia (RFE/RL, July 21), implying non-constitutional means of achieving that change.

None of this indicates a serious change in Armenia’s political dynamics – not yet. There is no shortage of bad blood between the HAK and the other opposition parties. But Mr Ter-Petrosian has consistently been the country’s most skilled political operator; he appears to be reinforcing his belief that a pragmatic approach to Nagorno-Karabakh will be more effective than the unwavering rejectionist attitude of Heritage, the ARF, and even sections of the government.

It also implies that as expected he is shifting further from a strategy of outright confrontation towards a more moderate stance. According to Heritage and the ARF, this constitutes ‘collaboration’ with the authorities. However he shares their goals of removing the HHK from power, and it is evident that the more radical parties’ strategy of non-engagement has failed to achieve very much.

It is also doubtful that they can muster the popular support needed to maintain huge rallies. Although Mr Ter-Petrosian’s reputation has been tarnished by his previous time in office, no other party has the star power or the strategic capability to pose a viable alternative. His strategy of caution could, in the event of sudden geopolitical changes, reap rewards in achieving the opposition’s strategy of ousting President Sargsyan.

For now he appears to be keeping his powder dry. The HAK has declared a new rally in Yerevan on September 17, although the party has refused to disclose whether or not this marks the start of a new round of protests (Armenia Liberty, July 28).

Rumours have circulated for months that the former President’s overtures could lead to his involvement in planning and executing a peace deal with Turkey or Azerbaijan (Eurasianet, November 24 2009). He would achieve power by the back door rather than through the mass political upheaval espoused by the radical parties which, Mr Ter-Petrosian seemingly believes, is doomed to failure. In other words a strategy of co-option, rather than confrontation. In this light the September protest will serve as a warning shot that, unless the government takes him seriously, the HAK leader will increase the tempo of his demonstrations and apply serious pressure to the authorities.

What Mr Ter-Petrosian may achieve in the coming months is outflanking both of his rival factions. Large, disciplined street protests will make the HAK appear more active and more committed than the more supposedly ‘radical’ parties. Meanwhile, criticising the government’s approach to Karabakh as obstinate and detrimental to Armenia’s future development can cement his reputation as a pragmatic and determined alternative to the HHK.

This may backfire. Unless he is welcomed into the government – and there is still too much bitterness on both sides for that to be likely – Mr Ter-Petrosian’s pragmatism can only succeed if the majority of Armenians agree that concessions on Karabakh need to be made. Persuading the Armenian people will take more than a speech and a rally.

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