It’s billed as an “open dialogue,” but as the weeks drag on, many Armenians are wondering what exactly members of President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration and opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian are talking about.
So far, neither side will say. But, whatever the details, former president Ter-Petrosian, head of Armenia’s largest opposition coalition, the Armenian National Congress (ANC), assured readers last week in an interview with RFE/RL that the exchange is “open.”
“We openly present our demands, our problems, our programs to the authorities and the public, and the authorities are openly responding,” he stated.
The thaw in relations between the opposition and government began early this spring, in the wake of political upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia, widespread protests in Yemen and ongoing popular uprisings in Libya and Syria. President Serzh Sargsyan commended Ter-Petrosian and supporters for “rallies that are not aimed at splitting society,” released five opposition activists from prison, and agreed to a broader investigation of the March 2008 post-election tumult in Yerevan that left at least 10 dead.
The Yerevan city government followed suit by allowing the opposition to hold rallies at Freedom Square for the first time since the 2008 confrontation there, while pro-government TV channels, long overtly critical of the opposition, adopted a friendlier tone to their coverage of Ter-Petrosian.
In recent weeks, as the government has made its overtures, Ter-Petrosian’s coalition has moved away from publicly lambasting the government and issuing calls for early elections. These tentative steps toward conciliation may be costing the ANC some of its support, however. “Opposition leaders, who have been chastising the authorities for years, all of a sudden have become tolerant and have started to meet authorities halfway; we have no choice but to think that there has been an internal agreement [with the government],” commented one opposition supporter who did not want to be named.
Bones of contention do, however, still exist. Ter-Petrosian, true to his deadline-setting style, has set another deadline – May 28 for the release of what his side portrays as six remaining “political prisoners.” He has threatened to stage a massive sit-in protest in Freedom Square, if the government fails to meet the deadline.
The government, for its part, continues to insist that it doesn’t hold any political prisoners. “The government’s moves are not stipulated by the demands of the opposition,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Armenia.
Few Armenians appear to be taking the ex-president at his word on the protest threat. Earlier, Ter-Petrosian had set an April 28 deadline for the government’s fulfillment of the opposition demand to free political prisoners from custody. That date came and went without the “watershed” moment promised by Ter-Petrosian. “I don’t think anything will change,” 40-year-old Yerevan economist Edik Manukian said, referring to the new May 28 deadline.
The political fashion for “openness” is not limited to the opposition. In a May 10 interview with the MediaMax news agency, former President Robert Kocharian, who was in office during the 2008 clashes between protesters and police, asserted that no one gave an order for police to shoot at demonstrators. “In any case, not that I know of,” he added. Kocharian blamed the deaths on “either a tragic concurrence of circumstances, or someone’s deliberate actions in order to discredit authorities.” Ter-Petrosian has not publicly commented on Kocharian’s interview.
As a sense of mystery continues to shroud the government-opposition “dialogue” some opposition supporters, tapping into the local love for conspiracy theories, have begun to fear that the ex-president has reached a back-room deal with the government. ANC representatives refute these reports. “This is just a propaganda trick that the government resorts to in order to demonstrate that their recent concessions to the Congress have nothing to do with the government’s weakness,” asserted Armenian National Congress coordinator Levon Zurabian.
Still, some analysts believe officials’ moves and statements are somehow related to those of the opposition leader. “There is no dialogue; there are mutually beneficial steps,” suggested political scientist Armen Aghaian. “There is a political game, a performance where both sides are playing for their own interests, regardless of the people’s will. … There is an agreement: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.”
Some other observers look to “external pressure” as motivating the government’s pas de deux with the ANC. In April, US Ambassador to Armenia Marie L. Yovanovitch said that Armenia would not be eligible to apply again for US-financed Millennium Challenge aid monies until it meets “good governance” standards. That criticism was followed shortly by a report issued by Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, who targeted the government’s investigation into the 2008 post-election violence, failure to release jailed opposition activists and the country’s freedom of the press record.
Political fatigue might also play a role. Thirty-five-year-old Yerevan lawyer Narine Badalian is among many Yerevan residents who say they are tired of the political battles. She says she would be happy if the opposition and authorities came to an agreement. “I want stability in my country,” Badalian said.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.