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Anush Levonyan: Armenia’s external and internal policies need an urgent “reload”

In early 2015, Armenia faced a number of landmark events that may soon have an impact on the country’s external and internal lives.

A grievous incident happened on the border of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on Jan 31: an anti-regime motor rally organized by the Founding Parliament radical opposition group was wrecked by the Nagorno-Karabakh police. The demonstrators were beaten by policemen and a group of “unknown people in civilian clothes,” with a video of the violence posted on the net to spark a massive public outcry. Pro-regime politicians and analysts reproached the opposition for having implicated the “frontline” Nagorno-Karabakh into internal collisions.

This, however, cannot justify the violence applied against peaceful demonstrators. The public reaction was so negative that the Parliament of Armenia was forced to convoke a special group for inquiring into the incident. Armenia’s Human Rights Commissioner Karen Andreasyan addressed his counterpart in Nagorno-Karabakh with a similar request.

Shortly afterwards, opposition parties, NGOs and civic initiatives met in Abovyan (Yerevan’s satellite-city – edit.) under the auspices of the leader of Prosperous Armenia Party, the biggest oligarch in Armenia, Gagik Tsarukyan. Once a coalition partner of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, Prosperous Armenia has been getting increasingly radical in recent months. Tsarukyan’s ultimatums and promises of even larger demonstrations in Yerevan and all over Armenia were perceived by many as a bid for power. He said that Armenia needed urgent mid-term elections – for “the patience of our people is exhausted”; but he also suggested an alternative to changing the regime: a new ruling coalition. According to Tsarukyan, it will be a force of new quality, consisting of new personalities – for the people is already tired of the old politicians. “But if the regime rejects our claims, one careless word will be enough for people to go into streets,” he said. It was a clear message that it was up to him to utter this word, but he may well remain silent if the regime agrees to form a new coalition government.

But the regime does not seem to be ready for a compromise: Speaker of the Parliament Galust Sahakyan was very critical of Tsarukyan’s speech. On the very next day, a group of masked people kidnapped and beat the activist of the Kasetsum (Prevention) Movement, member of Prosperous Armenia Artak Khachatryan. The party reacted with a statement qualifying the incident as “an impudent and cynical challenge to political forces and society.” They said that the attack had been organized by the regime and that such attacks had become quite frequent in Armenia. They also said that their supporters from all over Armenia were ready to come to Yerevan for a massive action of protest - but they had asked them to wait. Instead they called on their parliamentary group (the second biggest in the parliament – edit.) to boycott the Parliament’s work until the case was disclosed and those guilty were punished and to consider joint counter-measures with the other parliamentary forces. The Kasetsum Movement has been formed by small and medium-sized businessmen displeased with “anti-business” changes the authorities have made to the turnover tax law.

The second to react from the regime was Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, who rebuked Tsarukyan – even though the latter is the father of his daughter-in-law. Abrahamyan said that Tsarukyan’s actions might aggravate the internal political situation in the country. Abrahamyan’s words have proved that the conflict is actually serious.

This has not made Tsarukyan a “dissident” though – just because the real actor here is the founder and the actual leader of Prosperous Armenia, the country’s second President Robert Kocharyan, who was also slating the regime not long ago.

The implications of this process are clear. Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union means that the country can expect now no more financial support from the EU and the West. So, the only serious sponsor left is Russia. With both conflicting forces being strongly pro-Russian, this all looks very much like a fight for “the pie” Armenia may get from the Kremlin in short-term future. This appears to be the only realistic motive for Tsarukyan’s claims.

In this light, the future of Armenia’s relations with Russia is becoming a real concern for the country – especially as there are certain problems here. During the last PACE meeting, when the European parliamentarians voted to deprive Russia of its vote, the Armenian delegation did nothing to support the Russians. Three of the seven Armenian delegates abstained, the other four simply ignored the voting. The explanations given by the head of the delegation Hermine Naghdalyan have not explained anything – for one cannot take seriously the words that the Armenian delegates just failed to agree how to vote because they were seated in different parts of the hall. No surprise that some analysts in Moscow have seen some special design here (especially as two of the three Armenian abstainers were from the Republican Party of Armenia): they believe that this was an attempt by the Armenian authorities to show that they are displeased with Russia’s policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh and some other problems. It was a very serious mistake on Armenia’s part, especially as the Turkish and Azerbaijani delegations both voted in Russia’s support – for which they were later praised by Speaker of the Russian State Duma Sergey Naryshkin.

There are lots of different speculations why the Armenians denied support to Russia at PACE. They are displeased that the murderer of seven people in Gyumri, serviceman of the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia Valery Permyakov was not given to the Armenian authorities when caught near the Armenian-Turkish border. Permyakov is being kept at the base and will face a Russian military tribunal even though the agreement on the stay of the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia says that when a crime is committed outside the base and was aimed against Armenia citizens, the criminal should be given to the Armenian authorities.

The Armenians are also displeased to see that Russia is intensifying its military-technical cooperation with Azerbaijan and is even going to train Azerbaijani servicemen in its military schools.

The Expert weekly suggests that the Armenians abstained because they do not want to spoil their relations with the West before the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. “They give so high priority to this symbolic date that they are ready to sacrifice their real national interests, including their vital relations with Russia,” the weekly says, adding that in contrast, the Azerbaijani delegates acted more pragmatically by showing that they understand and support Russia’s interests. “Now that this happened, we can expect a breakthrough in Russian-Azerbaijani relations, which may become a serious problem for Yerevan,” the weekly says.

No coincidence that Stratfor has appeared with a report saying that Armenian-Russian relations may get worse. It is obvious that Stratfor’s report reflects the West’s hopes concerning the South Caucasus and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, in particular, but its remark that “Armenia is facing a growing challenge in the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Russia plays a key role” cannot be denied.

Indeed, in late 2014-early 2015 the tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh got so high that the spokesman of Armenia’s Defense Ministry qualified this as a “sluggish war.” Shootings and casualties among troops and civilians have already become a daily life. Even more, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said that from then on the Armenians would start applying “preventive strikes” for stopping the enemy. In the meantime, the Armenian defense minister gave a free hand to frontline commanders.

This approach can well raise the efficiency of Armenia’s military activities but it will hardly help to cut casualties among troops and civilians. With the Azerbaijani authorities sticking to their “all or nothing” stance, this confrontation may at one point take a frightening scale. They in Armenia are well aware of this. So, the question is why they seek escalation.

There may be two main reasons for this. The first reason is that the continuing social-economic crisis in Armenia is provoking serious public displeasure. So, the authorities are trying to transform this dangerous protest into some military-patriotic “national unity” moods. This can also help the regime to neutralize the opposition (Prosperous Armenia and its allies) as they could no longer be active in the face of an external threat. The second reason is that Armenia wants Russia to be more generous in its military-political support and more specific on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.

In both cases this policy looks to be very risky. Further military tensions and human casualties on the frontline may provoke even higher anti-regime passions. The opposition will rush to make use of them. And all this may encourage Azerbaijan to start a large-scale war – and it will attack not its border with Armenia, where the Russians have an obligation to interfere, but Nagorno-Karabakh, where they have no such right. Even more, this may give a freer hand to those wishing to deploy international peacekeepers in the region. All this will hardly please Russia.

So, we can see that today Armenia needs to restart its external and internal policies or it may face growing instability.

Anush Levonyan, political analyst, Yeervan

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