• Raffi Hovannisian greets a diverse crowd of supporters following a February rally in Yerevan.

June 1, 2013 | Magazine Archive

VOTE 2013: A NEW KIND OF ARMENIAN OPPOSITION

By John Hughes

February’s presidential election did not produce a change of leadership. In the end, the seats of power remained in place no less staunchly than when campaign rhetoric began several months earlier. But it did unexpectedly shake the political landscape, planting seeds of change in Armenia’s far-flung villages and offering the promise of increasingly dynamic civic engagement.

When Heritage Party founder and Armenia’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs Raffi Hovannisian announced his intention to seek the presidency last October, his candidacy was widely seen as a gesture. Hovannisian himself said he would withdraw from the race should a united opposition nominee emerge that matched his vision but with more substantial political clout.

Many thought that candidate would be Vartan Oskanian, a former foreign minister and founder of the respected Civilitas Foundation. Oskanian’s decade of government service and wide support among influential members of the Diaspora and the international community made him the clear choice to represent the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), the second-most powerful political body next to President Serzh Sargsysan’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA).

PAP had been a junior partner in Sargs­yan’s ruling coalition, but following a sizeable turnout in the 2012 parliamentary election (it won nearly 22 percent of the National Assembly seats), the party broke away and cast itself as an “alternative.”

When Oskanian joined Prosperous Armenia ahead of last year’s National Assembly election, his re-entry into politics was seen as formalizing his intention to seek the presidency— an ambition that would enjoy the considerable financial resources of party founder Gagik Tsarukyan and the political endorsement of former President Robert Kocharyan, the “godfather” of PAP.

Oskanian’s quest was sidelined by legal troubles, as he remains under investigation for fraud stemming from accusations against the Civilitas Foundation he founded upon leaving politics in 2008. It is difficult to find anyone either inside or outside Armenia who sees the charges against Oskanian as anything other than a political maneuver. Nonetheless, the National Assembly stripped Oskanian of his immunity, effectively disqualifying him from participation in the 2013 campaign.

Instead, PAP leader Tsarukyan was cast into the spotlight as the 2013 race took shape. Feared as much as respected across Armenia, Tsarukyan is known for his philanthropy but is also believed to exert his will through force and intimidation.

Appearances and perception aside, public surveys showed that, should Tsarukyan have run for the highest office, he stood as a  challenge to the presidency. 

But in December, against public speculation of a “deal” having been struck, PAP announced that Tsarukyan would not be a candidate for president. Not only would Prosperous Armenia not endorse Sargsyan, but the party said it would not support any candidate, including Hovannisian—who now emerged as the only legitimate, but marginal, threat to unseat Sargsyan.

‘Barevolution’: Hovannisian’s surprise

For at least 15 years, Raffi K. Hovannisian has had his eye on the Armenian presidency. But for nearly as many years, he had been denied the opportunity by a court that ruled him ineligible, not meeting the 10-year citizenship requirement. Hovannisian applied for citizenship during his tenure as foreign minister in 1991-92, but it would take a decade for him to be naturalized as an Armenian citizen.

Since Armenian independence in 1991, the US-born Hovannisian has been seen as a civic leader whose Western upbringing and education could well serve the republic as it struggles on the path to democracy. His outlook stands in sharp contrast with his peers, whose academic, professional and political careers were shaped by communist ideology and whose leadership was more granted than earned.

Affable and erudite, while also devotedly patriotic, Hovannisian’s approach to politics has more often than not clashed with traditional methodology in Armenia. Never was the difference so striking as when the official presidential campaign began in early 2013.

Taking his message door-to-door in a manner more associated with small-town council campaigning than a presidential race, Hovannisian set new stan­dards for courting votes in Armenia with what would later be dubbed the “Barevolution” (combining the Armenian word for “hello” with “revolution”).

The 53-year-old vowed to represent all opposition factions and even ran as an “independent,” without the nomination of his own He­ri­tage Party. Except for the support of Heritage and other groups of limited influence, Hovannisian was alone. Neither the Armenian National Committee (led by Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan) nor the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks) urged support for Hovannisian’s efforts to achieve what they had failed to do five years earlier.

Meanwhile, incumbent President Sargs­yan confidently assured the cleanest presidential vote since the first, in 1991, when nearly 100 percent of voters turned out. Cynics and skeptics were sure of it, too, arguing that there was no reason for RPA to worry, since their candidate appeared to be unopposed.

While cheering Hovannisian’s civic-mindedness and vox populi approach, political scientists and average observers speculated mid-teen voting percentages in his favor, owing largely to the dominance and resources of RPA. Many also questioned whether locals were willing to put a member of the Diaspora in the Presidential Palace.

When the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced results in the hours following the February 18 vote, Sargsyan’s re-election was shadowed by the remarkable news that Hovannisian had polled nearly 37 percent—more than the Ter-Petrosyan campaign managed during the divisive 2008 election and the second-highest in independent Armenia election history.

While oppositionists were stunned and encouraged by the outcome, Hovannisian number-crunchers were busy preparing to contest the result, charging that their candidate’s votes had ended up in Sargsyan’s tally.

The insider perception from the beginning of the campaign had been that RPA would “allow” Hovannisian to produce a respectable outcome, thereby creating the perception that Armenia had finally produced a political environment in which elections could be conducted both cleanly and competitively.  However, such speculation did not account for such a significant performance at the polls by Hovannisian, which led Sargsyan detractors to side with the surprise runner-up regarding claims that while the vote itself might have been untainted, the vote-counting process was suspicious.

While Hovannisian charged wrongdoing and staged protests that rallied a “people’s victory,” Sargsyan enjoyed the well-wishes of foreign governments and the tacit endorsement of international agencies that declared the 2013 vote the fairest of all.

Opposition unravels

From the outset, Hovannisian had vowed that any post-election demonstration would stop short of action that would incite physical clashes with law enforcement. And, rather than taking to marches, Hovannisian took to a bench in Liberty Square (Opera House) on March 11, from which he staged a hunger strike. It would last until Easter Sunday, when he returned to make visits in the provinces from which much of his support had come.

Indeed, it was the small towns and villages of Armenia that embraced “Barevolution.” For a week leading up to the April 9 inauguration of Sargsyan’s second term, Hovannisian rallied his followers, calling them to Yerevan for an alternative inauguration of the “real Armenia.”  A provocation that the authorities let go.

As President Sargsyan took his oath of office at the Karen Demirchyan Youth and Sports Complex, Hovannisian traded the casual clothing and bearded appearance that had been a trademark of his campaign for a suit and tie, a shave and a place behind a podium on the Opera House steps.

The following few hours would not conclude Hovannisian’s 2013 campaign, but would prove decisive, as his ability to lead was challenged by a moment of apparent indecision.

Hovannisian began a march up Baghram­yan Avenue where the National Assembly and Presidential Palace are located. He convinced some of the crowd to change course for a march to the Genocide Memorial after an initial scuffle with police, but not all were on board. Over the previous weeks of protests, Hovannisian’s movement had attracted the support of opposition hardliners, including those led by Nikol Pashinyan, editor of a radical opposition newspaper, who was imprisoned for his role in the deadly March 2008 uprising. Pashinyan and other more militant opponents ignored Hovannisian’s change of marching orders and stayed on the scene at Baghramyan while the presidential runner-up led a split crowd to the memorial.

The change of direction was seen not only as a literal breakdown, but also as a symbolic disintegration of Hovannisian’s short-lived influence over Armenia’s traditional “opposition.” Diverse, but also divided, the counter-­ government faction of society claims a single purpose—to un-seat RPA authority. As the recent election demonstrates, these groups remain too fractious to convincingly unite and tip the scale of power—even when presented with an unexpectedly impressive performance by a single candidate.

While the international community and foreign observers qualified the elections as fair, the February vote and subsequent political and public reaction were an indication that Armenia remains a country on the road toward democracy.

President Sargsyan attempted a conciliatory gesture to the opposition by inviting them to a dialogue regarding Hovannisian’s post-election demands that at first carried the heat of unexpected popular support, then weakened, to be extinguished outside the Presidential Palace as the incumbent’s re-election was toasted into history.

Hovannisian has continued his call for a non-partisan movement to establish a “new Armenia.” Speaking at what he called a “civil national forum” on April 19, Hovannisian said he would lead a new movement that would start in the provinces and serve as a grassroots foundation to compete in local elections. The independent hopes to lay the groundwork for the 2017 parliamentary polls, culminating in a presidential victory for the opposition five years from now, when Armenia will again have its democratic maturity measured.

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