Manvel Sarkisian, Independent researcher (Erevan, Armenia)
In 2005, domestic policy remained under the pressure of two major factors: the continued confrontation between the government and the opposition which began during the 2003 elections and the intention of the republic’s leaders to amend the Constitution. The opposition’s intention to force a change in the regime by means of a revolution and dispersal of the opposition rally on Bagramian Prospekt in Erevan on 12 April, 2004 added to the tension.
Throughout 2005, the confrontation became localized in the constitutional referendum issue. The visible and invisible transformations at the top and in the opposition ranks, as well as the interrelations between the sides stemmed from their desire to win; the referendum was merely another instrument of political struggle.
The boycott of the parliament launched by the opposition deputies and the organizational changes in the opposition camp proved to be two stable processes. A political struggle was waged around the Constitution and restoration of constitutional law and order through a change in the regime. For the first time in the last decade, the Karabakh issue disappeared from domestic policy.
Early in January, the deputies who refused to attend the parliament sittings informed the progovernment factions that they were prepared to return if the parliamentary majority agreed with all their constitutional amendments. At a meeting with the secretary of the opposition faction “Justice” Viktor Dallakian, speaker of the parliament Artur Bagdasarian promised to discuss the propositions relating to the constitutional reform submitted by the opposition within the next ten days and call a meeting to discuss the results.
The parliamentary majority, which was made up of three parties—the Republican, Dashnaktsutiun, and Orinats Erkir parties—and submitted its own amendments, rejected everything the opposition suggested. The opposition continued to boycott the parliament, while the Justice bloc became even more radical. On 10 February at a press conference in Erevan, an opposition member, leader of the New Times Party Aram Karapetian, announced that his party was prepared to launch a “national revolution” in April and to lead the popular revolt. It became obvious that there was a force prepared to head the revolutionary movement. On 16 February, another member of the united opposition, leader of the Liberal Progressive Party of Armenia (LPPA) Ovannes Ovannisian, announced that revolutions would inevitably shake the post-Soviet expanse and that Armenia would be no exception.
Meanwhile, the country reached a point beyond which the amended Constitution became the pivotal point for all the political forces. On 2 February, the parliament was expected to start consultations on the amendments; however, vice speaker Tigran Torosian announced that they would begin on 11 February.
Members of the Justice bloc refused to attend the consultations because the ruling coalition had rejected the amendments drafted by the Justice and National Unity (another wing of the opposition) factions. Confrontation over the Constitution became clear; it determined the logic of all the subsequent events inside the country; minor parallel issues appeared and disappeared without trace.
The hearings on Nagorno-Karabakh (one of the key problems of Armenia’s domestic policy) which took place at the National Assembly on 29 March were one such issue. They were prompted by another upsurge of talks on settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in particular the reports submitted by Davis and Atkinson and the PACE resolution based on them. Its theses caused a wave of mutual accusations hurled by the deputies and the republic’s Foreign Ministry. Ambitious Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian tried to play first fiddle in the settlement process.
No matter how important, this remained an isolated episode, while the constitutional process continued to be the main driving force behind all the political transformations inside the country. It became clear that the referendum might have a dramatic impact on the course of the political struggle. There was information about talks between the camps and about their true intentions. On 5 April, for example, members of the opposition New Times Party met a delegation of the progovernment Orinats Erkir Party in the former’s headquarters to discuss foreign and domestic policies for about an hour.
The opposition, however, remained as radical as before. On 13 April, the Justice bloc marked the anniversary of the dispersal of the rally on Bagramian Prospekt by calling a For the Sake of Democracy Forum to be carried out under the slogan “The Illegal Regime Should Leave—This is the Main Condition of Democracy.” Nearly all the political opponents of the regime (with the exception of the Armenian National Movement and the New Times Party) attended the forum.
This was when the first signs of inner-party changes appeared, together with the threat of the opposition’s disintegration. The Republic Party met for its congress on 15 April. Its political council, which was formed at the congress, elected Aram Sarkisian (the brother of prominent politician Vazgen Sarkisian, minister of defense and premier, who died in the 1999 terrorist act in the parliament) as party chairman. Albert Bazeian and Lieutenant General Vagarshak Arutiunian, former defense minister, who nominated Aram Sarkisian to this post, remained political council members. Later it became obvious that the congress had been the first step toward the split in the party; before that it had been the most radical of the opposition parties, uniting the followers of the murdered premier. In May, it became obvious that transformations in the opposition camp would go on. P. Ayrikian, leader of the National Self-Identification Party, speaking at the For the Sake of Democracy Forum, called on the deputies of the Justice bloc who were still boycotting the parliament to set up a National Council, a new political structure.
The joint action of the opposition and the progovernment parties proved to be even more symbolic. Twenty-five political organizations from both camps signed a protest against the criminal elements which dominate in the country’s politics. The protest was prompted by the events in the town of Sevan, where firearms were used to disperse a rally. Ten more parties signed the document later. The president betrayed his uneasiness by stating that the opposition had misinformed the coalition leaders.
Late in May, 16 opposition parties tried to set up an Advisory Council, an effort which displeased the leader of the Justice oppositional bloc, who said in particular: “Those who became deputies thanks to the bloc’s image” are aggravating the contradictions inside the bloc by their separatist activities.
Summer brought the transformations in the opposition camp and the opposition over the Constitution to a standstill. Early in August, the confrontation resumed over three important constitutional amendments. The opposition and the experts of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe agreed in their assessments, while the government flatly refused to accept them. The Venice Commission insisted that they should be introduced into the draft. It looked as though the opposition had gained international support. On top of this, at a press conference held on 3 August in Erevan, foreign diplomats positively assessed the commission’s suggestions regarding the set of constitutional reforms, the parliament approved it in May in the first reading. Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to Armenia Boyana Urumova, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the U.K. to Armenia Ms. Torda Ebbot-Watt, head of the Erevan OSCE office Vladimir Priakhin, and U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Anthony Godfrey expressed their hope that the opposition forces would participate in making the constitutional changes and in the referendum on the Constitution scheduled for the fall.
The public sector, which had so far been keeping out of the way, began taking more active part. On 25 August, Alexander Butaev of the initiative group called “People are the Masters of Their Country” announced that the public had not yet shown its interest in the amendments because the nation had not been informed of their meaning. He also pointed out that the Constitution should be amended to include provisions on the necessary democratic mechanisms. As a result, he added, people would obtain the right to carry out referendums and make important decisions.
The ruling coalition was concerned about these developments. It was forced to accept the demands of the Venice Commission, which worsened the opposition’s situation: since the government accepted (probably contrary to its will) its suggestions, there was no reason to remain in opposition. On 31 August, though, at a special parliament sitting to discuss the amendments in the second reading, Artashes Gegamian, chairman of the National Unity opposition faction called on the nation to reject the constitutional amendments at the referendum. Earlier, A. Sarkisian, chairman of the Republic Party, did the same thing. In this way, a new confrontation emerged between the government and the opposition over the yes/no answer. The opposition badly needed a new thesis to justify its stand and formulated it as “criminal power has no right to amend the Constitution.”
On 1 September, the parliament discussed the set of amendments coordinated with the Venice Commission in the second reading: 98 deputies voted for it; 1 abstained. Nobody voted against because the opposition factions National Unity and Justice did not vote at all. The final text should have been adopted in the third reading. The opposition, however, had already launched a campaign to boycott the referendum.
On 5 September, the non-parliamentary New Times Party called on all healthy forces to close ranks to initiate a change in the regime. On 9 September, Vazgen Manukian, chairman of the National-Democratic Union (NDU) and former premier, called on two out of three of the progovernment parties—the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun and Orinats Erkir—to leave the ruling coalition “since,” he said, “they are not involved in ruling the country and serve as a smokescreen for the third, Republican Party, which de facto rules the country.” On 20 September, the Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party headed by former foreign minister Raffi Ovannisian announced that it was against the referendum. The opposition camp showed no desire to close its ranks. Moreover, because of a scandal inside the party, the Republic Party, previously the leader of the most radical part of the opposition, split. Its most influential members, Albert Bazeian and former defense minister Vagarshak Arutiunian, discontinued their membership and offered scandalous revelations about their recent ally, Aram Sarkisian. They announced that they intended to start a new party with the tentative name of New Democrats and to convene its constituent congress in about two months’ time.
Alarmed, the other opposition members deemed it necessary to create a new format of joint action before the referendum. Thus, on 29 September, 16 political organizations and the Forum of the Country’s Intelligentsia issued a statement on their cooperation, which said in particular: “We have rejected constitutional amendments and in this way we are saying ‘no’ to the ruling regime.” Later, the Heritage Party joined them, which gave a name to the new format—the opposition headquarters 17 + 1. This meant that confrontation between the government and its political opponents acquired a definite organizational shape.
On 4 October, President Robert Kocharian issued a decree which set the referendum date for 27 November. On the same day, he signed a law adopted by the parliament which amended and changed the republic’s Law on Referendum. The country’s domestic political life concentrated on the subject of the national poll.
The public was puzzled by the continued confrontation. On 6 October, the press club of Erevan declared that the independent civil structures should remain neutral because supporting political forces was not their mission—they should concentrate on enlightening activities.
Meanwhile, the opposition, which gained a new lease on life after becoming united, specified its tactics. On 8 October, the NDU council met to listen to its chairman Vazgen Manukian, who explained the contents of the constitutional debate and the political situation in the country. After discussing the situation, the council voted to boycott the referendum.
It should be noted that at first the opposition parties could not agree on the right policy: some preferred to vote “no” at the referendum, while others insisted on boycotting. On 12 October, for example, the political council of the Justice bloc decided to call on its supporters to vote “no.” The council drafted a statement which said that “a positive result at the referendum will make the regime legitimate.” It also added that it would discuss the text with another opposition structure, the National Unity Party; and from 18 October until referendum day, the bloc resolved to meet the people and persuade them to reject the amendments.
The republic’s leaders lost no time either. On 13 October, President Kocharian met the council members of the progovernment coalition. It was decided to set up a coordinating structure which would unite the progovernment structures and other political forces involved in the constitutional process. Mger Shakhgeldian, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Defense, National Security, and Internal Affairs, was appointed head of the coordinating group.
The opposition, meanwhile, was cementing its unity. Koriun Arakelian, deputy chairman of the National Unity Party, said in the National Assembly that his party would support the Justice bloc and open the “second front” of confrontation. This spelled the danger of a revolution. The country’s leaders resorted to blackmailing: at a press conference, presidential adviser Garnik Isagulian warned some of the opposition members that if they continued to trade their Motherland for foreign support in a Color Revolution, he would inform the press about these facts. He further said that there was no threat of a Color Revolution in Armenia and that the country should move on to the next election cycle of 2007-2008.
In this situation, international structures and European countries moved to the government’s side with their open propaganda in favor of the referendum. U.S. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Armenia John Evans told the press: “The set of amendments is fairly satisfactory. The outcome depends on the people: we all expect them to pass their verdict on that day.” He added that the approval threshold was very high: one-third of Armenia’s electorate.
The support was well timed—the “yes” camp strengthened. On 18 October, at a meeting with the leaders of the ruling coalition, 21 political parties called on the nation to vote “yes.” Head of the Coordinating Center Mger Shakhgeldian invited all the political forces to join the document. The “yes” camp was also doing its best to prevent the coalition from becoming stronger. In a certain sense, this confrontation looked comical. On 25 October, the Republic Party, having been denied premises for its congress, held it out in the open in front of the Matenadaran, the depository of ancient manuscripts. On the eve, it circulated a press release which said: “By doing this, the government interfered with the party’s activities, thus violating several constitutional provisions.”
Foreign countries and international organizations were much more serious about the referendum. Some of their significant statements were designed to dampen the revolutionary ardor. On 27 October, the U.S. ambassador announced that the United States had already started preparations for the Armenian election in 2007. According to John Evans, the Congress had already approved a set of measures and allocated about $6 million. The hint was too obvious to be missed.
The “yes” and “no” camps launched wide-scale campaigns. On 29 October, the opposition 17 + 1 headquarters organized a Erevan-Shirak car race, rallies in the towns of Artik and Maralik, and a large demonstration in the city of Giumri with the aim of convincing the local people to boycott the referendum in order to turn it into a vote of “no confidence.”
Only three local structures—the Your Choice public organization, the Social-Democratic Gnchakian Party, and NDU—together with the PACE mission deemed it necessary to register at the Central Election Commission as observers.
As the referendum date drew closer, the squabbles rose in pitch. It seemed that the country’s leaders realized too late that politicization of constitutional reform was dangerous. On 3 November, the president met with professors and students of Erevan University to answer their questions about the reform. He rejected all the arguments of his political opponents and assured them that he would accept any result at the referendum. Nothing bad would happen to the country if the amendments were rejected, but the country’s image would be tainted, he said.
The rapidly consolidating opposition was of a different opinion: the failure of the referendum would doom the regime. On 8 November, S. Demirchian of the People’s Party attended a sitting of the 17 + 1 opposition headquarters and agreed to join the opposition’s undertakings. The headquarters received a new name—18 + 1—even though the People’s Party had not signed the constituent documents. The National Unity remained the only opposition structure that preferred independent actions.
The country’s leaders were alarmed even more. As a precautionary measure they decided to limit the number of international observes, which gave rise to no objections from the international structures. Urdur Gunnarsdottir, press secretary of OSCE/ODIHR, said that since the government had not sent his organization an invitation, none of its observers would attend the referendum.
It should be added that propaganda was limited to the yes/no issue without going into the details of the proposed amendments. The public, however, was concerned about the planned ban on dual citizenship. On 9 November, the Consent Center of Independent Analytical Studies, which enjoys the favor of the former ruling Armenian National Movement (ANM) Party, organized a seminar in the Congress Hotel to discuss the issue in detail. The participants unanimously agreed that Armenian citizenship should belong to those who shared the hardships of the country and its people during the early 1990s. The same issue was discussed on TV.
Quite unexpectedly the constituent congress of the Dashink (Union) Party which met on 10 November caused quite a stir amid the pre-referendum chaos. Its head, Samvel Babaian, hastened to disprove the rumors about his presidential ambitions in 2008. Vaan Ovannisian, who represented the Dashnaktsutiun Party, pointed out that it was not by chance that the new party had chosen a name similar to that of his own party. Obviously, Dashnaktsutiun expected to acquire a reliable partner, while many observers pointed out that the “yes” camp had reinforced its position. The new party’s head, however, stated that he had no specific opinion about the referendum.
Meanwhile, those who wanted to boycott the referendum were gradually gaining a stronger foothold. On 10 November, the ANM board called on the nation to boycott the illegal referendum. The text approved by the board appeared on 15 November. It described the new version of the Constitution offered for the referendum as an attempt to undermine Armenia’s basic values. On the same day, 10 November, the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Civil Assembly announced that during the discussions of the draft amendments, human rights had been violated, therefore public opinion had not been taken into account. It was, in fact, an invitation to boycott the referendum which no one, except the government, really needed. At that time, the opposition had not yet reached an agreement on the issue. On 11 November, at a constituent congress of the National Revival Party, Albert Bazeian and Vagarshak Arutiunian, its founding fathers, announced that they had decided to start a new party since they had left the Republic Party because of disagreements with its leaders. They stated that they would remain in opposition until legal power was restored and promised to cooperate with S. Demirchian, leader of the Justice bloc, in their propaganda against the amendments. Several days later, on 15 November, the National Unity Party, the People’s Party, and the 18 + 1 headquarters reached an agreement on a joint boycott of the referendum. As a result, the opposition finally overcame the disagreement over the issue. Its mass actions became purely political. On 21 November, at a press conference, leader of the Heritage Party Raffi Ovannisian (member of the 18 + 1 structure) announced that he planned a “Meeting of Citizens” in Erevan, on Freedom Square, as a show of no confidence in the government and its referendum. Two hours later, Artashes Gegamian, leader of the National Unity Party, another opposition structure, called a press conference to announce that it would carry out all its anti-referendum events independently. The statements of the two leaders, who had recently joined the 18 + 1 headquarters, demonstrated that the anti-government camp was not united and that the boycott was the only point on which they agreed.
Tension was gradually mounting. On 24 November, Vazgen Manukian, former premier, head of NDU, and member of the Justice parliamentary faction, announced: “A boycott is an ideal form of protest for the opposition, since the government has obviously become resolved to falsify the results. If this happens, the people will acquire the moral right to revolt. My party is prepared to lead them.” There was obviously a problem of personal leadership in the opposition ranks. This became even clearer when on 25 November Raffi Ovannisian, leader of the Heritage Party, called the Meeting of Citizens on the square before the State Opera; several other opposition parties supported his initiative. On a suggestion by A. Sarkisian, leader of the Republic Party, the crowd of about 800 declared a sit-in strike; they were even supplied with tents. The demonstration continued the next day; this was the beginning of the post-referendum rallies.
On the same day, 25 November, President Kocharian gave an interview to the central TV channels in which he said: “The opposition has failed to provide a reasonable argument in favor of the ‘no’ answer or boycott.”
The referendum took place on 27 November as planned. According to preliminary information supplied by the Central Election Commission, 65.3 percent of the total number of people with the right to vote came to the polls; 93.3 percent of them supported the amendments; 5.4 percent voted against.
PACE was the only international organization to observe the referendum. The next day, 28 November, its mission announced that the referendum corresponded to international standards. At the same time, the observers pointed out: “The number of voters—1.5 million—quoted by the Central Election Commission is overstated, yet undoubtedly the needed number of voters—no less than 782,000—approved the amendments.”
At the same time, the Justice bloc issued a statement calling the referendum illegal because of mass falsifications; it insisted that less that 400,000 had come to the polls, that is, 20 percent of the total number. The bloc criticized the international organizations and PACE in particular.
Later the same day, the Public Information Center of the United Opposition published its figures, according to which 84.7 percent of the voters chose to boycott the referendum and only 15.3 percent approved the amendments. These figures had nothing in common with the official information, yet the opposition said it would not appeal to court since the judicial system was subordinate to an illegal government.
Tension mounted once more. In an effort to create a “critical mass” to pass a decision on a change in the regime, the opposition started another series of mass rallies, while the government remained passive because of possible criticism from the international community. It turned out later that both sides had to cope with unexpected problems. On 29 November, President Kocharian congratulated the nation on its decision to amend the Constitution and said in particular that the “yes” answer testified that the people wanted deeper reforms, while the amended Constitution paves the way to prosperity in the 21st century.
The same day, the coalition of the progovernment parties issued a statement pointing out that the referendum should be considered valid, since the results on the whole corresponded to the nation’s general feelings and expressed its will.
At the same time, at another meeting (starting on 25 November meetings became a daily feature in the capital), the opposition sent an ultimatum to the Central Election Commission with a demand to annul the referendum results within 72 hours. According to the law enforcement bodies, the rally was attended by 1,100 people, while the opposition claimed an attendance of between 7,000 and 10,000.
By that time, the Central Election Commission had already published the final results: 1,411,711 (93.2 percent) people voted for; 82,018 (5.4 percent)—against; 1,582 ballot papers were invalid; 1,513,541 people (65.3 percent of 2,317,317, the total number of voters) came to the polls.
The rallies ended after 2 December when the EU ambassadors received representatives of the opposition in the U.K. embassy. The same day, the EU published a statement about the referendum and called on the authorities to investigate the violations and punish those responsible for them.
It became obvious that, on the whole, the people had not supported the opposition rallies; it was obvious at the same time that the results had been falsified. Society simply steered clear of the political processes, something that neither the opposition, nor the government expected. Nor could the sides have predicted what happened next. The center of gravity shifted to the parliament. At a regular session on 5 December, the Justice faction suggested that the signatures of 44 deputies be collected to set up a parliamentary commission to investigate the mass violations registered during the referendum. Speaker Artur Bagdasarian, who had earlier spoken about serious violations, found himself under pressure from the parliamentary opposition, which insisted that his faction should join the initiative. He said that the commission was not needed and that he intended to send a letter to the General Prosecutor’s Office, since it was its responsibility to investigate such violations.
On 8 December, the opposition 18 + 1 format gathered a “Meeting of Citizens” in the Cinema House to discuss further action. The organizers described the post-referendum situation, announced their intention to set up a public movement with a united coordination center, and invited all the opposition parties to join.
Time showed that the opposition was no longer the driving force behind the further development of events. The ruling coalition was badly shaken by the speaker’s acknowledgement of the falsifications and his intention to appeal to the General Prosecutor’s Office. And his statement about fighting the falsifications was the last straw. On 17 December, the Republican Party, one of the members of the ruling coalition, met for its congress. Judging by the aggressive statements of its leaders and its attacks on other members of the same coalition, the party was launching its election campaign. This means that the referendum results provoked the party to do this eighteen months before the parliamentary election scheduled for 2007. This started a party boom in the country; all parties began “preening their feathers,” there were rumors that more parties would appear.
On 19 December, the non-parliamentary New Times opposition party met for its congress. It was about the same time that its leader Aram Karapetian received an Honorary Guest of Russia Order in Moscow, in the State Kremlin Palace (formerly the Palace of Congresses). The Armenian politician was the first person in the CIS to receive this order.
The squabbles over the referendum continued to send tension up. On 19 December, the speaker of the National Assembly Artur Bagdasarian sent a document containing facts of the falsifications to the General Prosecutor’s Office. General Prosecutor Agvan Ovsepian responded immediately. The next day he called a press conference to say that his office had no information about serious violations. After hearing this, Artur Bagdasarian sent a copy of the same document to the press; on 23 December, he convened his own press conference at which he said that 2006 would be marked by fierce election battles. On 26 December, the president reminded the members of the ruling coalition that the pact signed by the three parties and the president would remain valid until 2007 and that it imposed certain mutual responsibilities on all the sides involved.