Armenia in Turmoil
Armenia in Turmoil


by Tony Halpin

Serge Sargsyan quoted Nerses Shnorhali, the 12th-century poet and catholicos, in his presidential election program to explain his outlook on the development of civil society in Armenia: "Unity as primary, freedom as secondary, and love in everything."

A glance at Sargsyan's resume shows him well prepared to tough out a period of confrontation should he choose to follow this route. He came to prominence as head of the self-defense forces committee in Nagorno Karabakh in 1989, a post he held until 1993, when the terrorized population first survived Azerbaijan's siege of Stepanakert and then forced the Azeri army into retreat from Shushi before punching a corridor through to Armenia itself.

Sargsyan pre-dates Robert Kocharian's arrival in Yerevan from Artsakh, taking office as Minister of Defense in 1993. Two years later, he was made head of Armenia's state security department and expanded his role in 1996 by becoming Minister of the Interior and National Security.

He was in charge of national security when terrorists stormed the National Assembly in Yerevan in October 1999 and shot dead the Speaker Karen Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation), and six parliamentary deputies. The failure to detect and prevent the attack exposed Sargsyan to serious criticism about his competence in overseeing national security. He submitted his resignation four days after the attack.

Almost immediately, Sargsyan moved into the presidential palace as chief of staff to Kocharian at a time when Armenia teetered on the brink of serious internal conflict as divisions opened up between the authorities and politicians who suspected official complicity in the attack.

Sargsyan was made secretary of Armenia's National Security Council, chaired by President Kocharian, a post he held until last year. He simultaneously served as Defense Minister until he was named Prime Minister in April 2007, following the sudden death of Andranik Margarian.

Sargsyan's military and security background leaves him disposed to confront dissent with force, a policy he has inherited from Kocharian following the events of March 1. After the State of Emergency was lifted on March 21, riot police were out in force on numerous occasions to confront demonstrators doing nothing more than walking from Liberty Square, where opposition protests against the election result first began, to the area where eight people died in violent clashes with troops.

But those who know Sargsyan well say that he also has the intellectual flexibility to seek alternative avenues out of Armenia's present crisis. They say that he is easily capable of springing surprises¡ªone colleague described it as performing somersaults¡ªto ease social tensions.

That quality is not immediately apparent to those who meet him. Sargsyan cuts a slight and unimposing figure, with a diffident manner and a voice that lacks authority. He does not manipulate public emotion in the recent style of Ter-Petrosian, nor does he have the somber detachment of Kocharian. His presidential style remains undefined.

Prior to last May's parliamentary elections, as Sargsyan prepared to declare his candidacy for president, an international public relations company, Burson-Marsteller, was hired to burnish his image and "implement a program of long-term awareness and reputation building."

According to filings with the US Department of Justice, the agreement was signed in October 2006 by a Glendale-based Armenian, Stepan Martirosyan, for Burson-Marsteller to "inform US policymakers of the policy positions and activities of the Government of Armenia and of Minister Serge Sargsyan." In return, the company was paid a retainer of $65,000 a month plus expenses, with an additional $50,000 plus expenses each time a small team from the agency traveled to Yerevan on short trips to provide consultancy advice.

Sargsyan enjoyed almost total support from state-controlled media in Armenia in the pre-election period. Mirroring tactics in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin's chosen successor Dmitri Medvedev had campaigned under the slogan "Forward Russia," Kocharian endorsed Sargsyan, who ran under the slogan of "Forward Armenia."

Much of his campaign material presented an image of an elder statesman, contrasting Sargsyan's quiet modesty and the promise of steady continuity of progress to the convulsive upheaval of a Ter-Petrosian insurgency.

The former president had repeatedly mocked the Kocharian-Sargsyan axis and at one point apologized to voters at a rally on Freedom Square for ever bringing them to Yerevan from Karabakh. Two days before the election, Sargsyan held his own rally on the Square and declared: "Friends, our society has waited long for an expression of remorse, a plea of forgiveness for all the mistakes of the past. This plea did not come.

It did not, because only the strong can ask for forgiveness. Today, before thousands of you assembled here, I am asking our people for forgiveness. Forgiveness for all the mistakes of the authorities through these 17 years, for all the miserable and trouble-ridden days you have lived through, for the heartless attitudes of officials at all levels, for everything©¼ I beg for your forgiveness for these and I say that we shall fix all of it with a strong spirit and a steady hand."

However sincere, the attempt to wipe the slate clean and to "build a better Armenia" foundered in the death and violence of March 1, and in the mass arrests and repressions during the State of Emergency and beyond. Sargsyan starts with a deficit of trust deepened by persistent suspicions that electoral abuses were sufficient to question his legitimacy. Sargsyan won 52.8 percent of the vote, just above the 50 percent threshold required for first-round victory, against 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrosian, but international observers described counting in 16 percent of polling stations to be "bad or very bad."

Division and Expectations

Certainly, he could not wish to begin his presidency with repression or expect to maintain such a policy throughout his five-year term. At 54, Sargsyan is older than Kocharian and Ter-Petrosian when they assumed the highest office. He has greater all-round experience of government than either man at the start of their presidency, suggesting he knows how to pull the levers of power to obtain a desired result.

Such experience would ordinarily have made him an ideal presidential candidate. But characteristics that might have been admired before are now viewed with suspicion by a sizeable portion of the people Sargsyan seeks to lead.

Born in Stepanakert, his origins as a "Karabakhtsi" successor to Kocharian have stirred up antagonisms among people who believe that Armenia's political and economic life are dominated by a regional clan loyal, above all, to the men who enriched them. Ter-Petrosian stirred this antagonism, and the injection into Armenia's public life of an "us" and "them" mentality has created a poisonous new dynamic between those from the republic and from Karabakh, which is focused on Sargsyan's personality.

Kocharian took such offense at this line of attack that he called for legislative changes to make it a crime to "drive a wedge or spread hatred between various sections of the Armenian people."

Sargsyan's attempts to defuse tensions by building consensus appear to have backfired so far. He reached out to opposition candidates after the election and persuaded election opponent Artur Baghdasarian as well as the Dashnaktsutyun party to join him and oligarch Gagik Tsarukian's Prosperous Armenia party in government.

The move clearly aimed to isolate Ter Petrosian but it has also emphasized the degree to which anti-Sargsyan sentiment is shut out from every arena of politics except the street.

The sweeping victory of the Republican Party, headed by Sargsyan, in last May's parliamentary elections means that he already has total control over parliament. The four-party coalition inked after the presidential election means that 95 per cent of the 131 deputies in parliament are committed to support Sargsyan and his government. Only the Heritage Party of Raffi Hovannisian, barred once again from standing for the presidency, stands in opposition in parliament.

This casts new light on legislation passed during the State of Emergency that bans demonstrations if police or the security service even anticipate trouble, however unlikely. Peaceful anti-government protests have effectively been banned, forcing Sargsyan's opponents to choose between cowed silence or characterization as criminals.

The Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have already condemned the law as incompatible with Armenia's membership commitments to respect freedom of assembly. President Sargsyan's first challenge will be to work out how to end the restrictions without giving fresh impetus to the protest movement against him.

Inherited Challenges

The impact of events in Yerevan on Armenia's international image inevitably influences impressions of President Sargsyan's ability to strike agreement on peace in Karabakh. Azerbaijan has adopted a harsher tone over the OSCE's Minsk group process to find a settlement, particularly after a March 14 vote in the United Nations General Assembly in support of a resolution upholding its sovereignty over Karabakh and demanding "unconditional" withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied territories.

Sargsyan has reaffirmed his willingness to support a settlement currently placed on the table by Minsk group negotiators from the US, Russia and France. There is a feeling that the international community spared Sargsyan direct criticism during the reaction to the crackdown in Yerevan because he is seen as the man most likely to be able to deliver a deal.

But the fear in Yerevan over the Minsk process has always been that a settlement would trigger a political backlash that could consume those who were ready to compromise. With society now so deeply divided, it is harder still to imagine how Sargsyan could build a consensus behind him for a peace deal.

Sargsyan has pledged to ease social tensions through hard work and by building public confidence in his leadership. But he also places the blame for events squarely on Ter-Petrosian and declares that "the guilty should be punished."

He has so far evaded answering whether this will include his election rival. With more than 100 opposition activists already in detention and facing trial on serious charges, Sargsyan's presidency opens with the prospect of judicial and political conflict continuing well into the months ahead and draining attention from his legislative initiatives.

It is impossible to say at this point whether passions will subside or grow more inflamed. Many people who had not supported Ter-Petrosian defined themselves after March 1 as opposed to Sargsyan and in despair at a lack of any alternative candidate to support.

Armenia has an unhappy history of presidential elections, with tanks on the streets in 1996, forced resignation in 1998 and anti-Kocharian street protests in 2003. Now Sargsyan's presidency opens with a question mark over his ability to see out the full term.

It was all supposed to be so different. Three days before the bloody events that left eight people dead, he told a rally in Yerevan: "I swear to do everything to justify your trust with a clean heart. I assure you that you will never have to regret casting your vote for Serge Sargsyan in these elections."

It is the yardstick by which he will be measured not only by those who voted for him, but by those for whom he has become a symbol of all that has gone wrong with modern Armenia. Sargsyan will never convince an embittered minority that he is a legitimate president.

His bigger challenge, however, lies in his ability to secure and retain the support of a majority that has grown fearful of the future in a divided society.

Tony Halpin has reported on Armenia since the early 1990s. He is currently Moscow bureau chief for the Times of London newspaper.

Originally published in the April 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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