BY MARIA TITIZIAN
While it is business as usual for the rest of the world, the Armenian people have been embroiled in a political process that might appear to be imploding. But is it?
Following the presidential elections on February 18, 2013, the citizens of Armenian unequivocally voiced their profound discontent at the status quo. They did so by exercising their civic right motivated not by money or because of intimidation but because they desired regime change, a better more stable future for themselves and their families. The result of that vote was not anticipated, not by any political pundit, power, party, ordinary person or the ruling regime itself. It was unprecedented and everyone in the country understood that something had explicitly changed in people’s attitudes, behavior and actions on Election Day. Citizens had been able to overcome coercion and exploitation by those in power and took action in their own hands in a way that no other politician or political force had been able to do thus far.
Heritage Party leader and presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian secured 37 percent of the vote, the highest percentage for an opposition candidate in our country’s 22-year history. Even before the Central Electoral Commission announced the final results, Mr. Hovannisian held a press conference several hours after the close of polls declaring himself the winner. And thus began a series of events which appeared at first to be mobilizing many segments of society, which brought together different opposition forces, civil society organizations, activists, intellectuals and ordinary people right across the country.
As the movement began to crystallize, it took on the name of Barevolution. In contrast to the 2008 post-presidential election movement led by former President Levon Ter Petrossian, which led to mass riots and clashes, leaving 10 people dead, the Barevolution was full of light and hope and positive energy. While at first Raffi Hovannisian himself appeared to be startled by the results he had garnered, he began to instill a hope we had all thought was lost. However, the repeated promise of radical structural change, the maximalist statements, the blurred strategy, the continuing parody of come-to-the-next-rally-and-I-will-unveil-my- plan, the hunger strike, the conflicting messages and the ruling regime’s cynicism at the events unfolding around the movement left many of us frustrated.
In the midst of the continuing rallies, I had to leave for a month-long trip. I returned to Armenia a day before April 9, the day of Serzh Sarkisian’s inauguration as president and a scheduled rally by the Barevolution in Liberty Square. I wanted to be here, to be present, and to bear witness to what I hoped would be a turning point for democracy, for freedom of expression, for the future of our country.
Liberty Square on April 9 was teeming with protestors; estimates range from 10 to 15 thousand people. Many of the streets in the city had been sealed off for the inauguration. Armenia’s public television station H1 aired the ceremony live. Immediately following the “official” inauguration, it was Raffi Hovannisian’s turn in the square. Even with the mounting unease about the movement, people were waiting with great anticipation for a clearly defined strategy and a plan of action, which never materialized. Mr. Hovannisian made several patriotic statements, took an oath with the people holding up copies of the constitution, and then told everyone to enjoy the concert and go about their business and reassemble in Liberty Square at 6 p.m.
While many of us were shocked and left bewildered, several groups of activists dispersed and had confrontations with police at different locations of the city; people were injured, others were arrested and later released. Even with the disappointment at the inaction of Hovannisian, later that day the people did come back to the square at 6 p.m. Once again, rhetorical statements were heard…”Today, there is no Heritage Party, no ARF, Armenian National Congress (HAK) or Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), only the Armenian people.” Among other things, he told the crowd that he would be leaving for Moscow the following morning to meet with Putin and bring back with him “the Armenian people’s victory.” He instructed those at the rally to come back to Liberty Square in two days on April 12 for a two hour rally. At this point the crowd started whistling (a sign of discontent in Armenia) and chanting, “Now, Now, Now.”
There appeared to be confusion among the people and on the platform where Raffi was standing. It was at this precise moment that it became clear that the people in the square were leading the movement and not Raffi. After continual whistling and jeering, he took a spontaneous decision to lead the people to the Genocide Memorial via Baghramian Street, which had been sealed off because of the inauguration ceremonies; it would be a decision ripe with pitfalls. From the platform, Hovannisian told the police to open the roads, he called out to all political parties to join him and declared that “in silence and with honor” the Armenian people were going to go to the Genocide Memorial to pray. And as the crowd made its way toward Baghramyan Street, they were confronted by an exceptional amount of riot police and a melee ensued.
After much pushing and shoving, yelling and confrontation, Chief of Police Vladimir Kasparyan negotiated with Raffi and convinced him to proceed to the Genocide Memorial by another route, to which Raffi agreed, I suspect to ensure that clashes did not take place. Amidst the pushing and shoving, his wife, Armine Hovannisian is pushed to the ground. Taking several hundred people with him on his trek up the hill to the memorial, thousands more of his supporters stayed behind on Baghramyan Street, leaderless and unsure of what to do, unaware that Hovannisian had left with Kasparyan. The clashes that ensued left dozens of people injured and dazed. Hovannisian returned to Baghramyan Street hours later but the damage had already been done.
On April 12, under pouring rain, the Armenian people came back to the square in much less numbers only to hear that Hovannisian, after making several patriotic proclamations and leveling accusations at everybody from the President to the other opposition parties, would hold a meeting at Ani Hotel or possibly another location on April 19 where he would unveil his plan, yet again.
I don’t want to pass judgment on his tactics or strategy because they are not known to me or those opposition parties who declared their support for the movement publicly and early on. And while most of us are bewildered and confused at Raffi’s leadership, we also understand that the movement is not dead, however it is no longer clear if it is Raffi’s movement anymore. It is the people’s movement now, (it was always theirs to begin with) because it is they who instigated this process by their vote. It is they who have been coming to the rallies to support this movement. It is they who directed Raffi to Baghramyan Street on April 9. It is they who remained on Baghramian Street after Raffi decided to take another route to the Genocide Memorial. Watch the videos and you will see how the crowd was left confused and attempted to organize itself with former presidential candidate Andreas Ghoukasian at the helm who had stayed behind. However, while it is the people’s movement, they need capable leadership here.
I don’t want to look back over the last month and a half and say this is what he should have or could have done to avoid the confusion of April 9. We have what we have and we must now look to see how we can salvage the situation.
Raffi Hovannisian claims this movement is not about him or the Heritage Party, it is not about the ARF, HAK or BHK. It is not about political parties, it is about the Armenian people’s victory. Surely it is the people’s victory but the people cannot be left leaderless, therefore since he is the symbolic leader he then too sees himself as the de facto leader of this movement, so it is about him at the end of the day.
This is a dangerous game that he is playing. Those powers in opposition, whether or not their political actions have been astute, whether or not they have their finger on the pulse of the nation, whether they have truly done their part to ensure the success of this movement, Hovannisian cannot repeatedly discount their presence in the country’s political processes. While he continually says this movement is not about them, he then turns around and criticizes them for not participating wholly in the process and if they do want to participate in it, he wants to dictate their actions. There isn’t a political party in the world who would agree to those conditions and game plan.
In this vein therefore, if he is the de facto leader of this movement, then this movement requires a plan of actions, a strategy, methodology and above all mobilization and inclusion of all segments of society. These need to be clearly defined, articulated and made known to the thousands of people who form the movement and those political powers in opposition who want to support the people. It should not be kept a secret for Hovannisian or his inner circle. He cannot continually ask the people in the square and in the country to follow him from one rally to another, promising a policy and then not delivering.
A movement either realizes short-term radical change or a long-term set of actions leading to structural reform and not simply a replacement of one group of people in leadership positions with another group of people or parties. Hovannisian’s maximalist statements – “The president, the Catholicos are going to get down on their knees and beg the Armenian people’s forgiveness;” “Russia, the U.S. and the E.U. are going to regret their actions;” “Serzh Sarkisian’s inauguration will take place over my dead body…”These statements do not a movement make especially if there is not a back-up plan. Anyone hearing them would be led to believe that immediate, radical actions are going to be realized, the end result being violent confrontation and the shedding of blood, something nobody in this country wants to see.
Those powers in the opposition, the ARF, BHK, HAK; social movements like the Pre-Parliament, Sardarabad, and others along with Raffi must come to a consensus, they must sit down together, put aside their political ambitions and personal beliefs, they must hammer out a plan, either with Raffi at the helm or not, it doesn’t matter, they must not abandon the people who rose above everything and demanded change. They cannot leave the people leaderless, they cannot once again disappoint a whole generation that has been faithfully coming to the rallies, they cannot allow a loss of hope and disillusionment which will be catastrophic for the country’s future and they cannot allow the ruling regime to believe they have won because it will lead to their further intransigence and continuing cynicism and disregard of the people’s desires.
Watching the videos of the events that transpired on April 9 further solidified in my mind that this movement is not dead, that there is still life in this movement but if it is going to succeed it needs actions and not rhetoric. Patriotic statements, emotional rants, waving of fists in the air can sustain it only for a short period of time; real policy, strategy is required. The people need to understand that this process may take years to realize its core mission – regime change, the establishment of democratic rule, eradication of the oligarchy, social justice, equal opportunities. These are lofty goals at Armenia’s current juncture, and they will not be achieved quickly and certainly not without pain and sacrifice and this had to be communicated to the people.
The upcoming municipal elections in Yerevan must be seen as the first step to changing the existing paradigm. Unfortunately, opposition parties did not come to a mutual agreement about the format of moving forward with those elections. All is not lost, however. All those forces, political or social, formal or informal in the country that want radical, structural change in the way the country is being run, must not lose this historic opportunity. Hovannisian needs to listen to those who want to support the movement, he must make concessions and he must be more accepting and open to their opinions and those forces must understand that while this movement is not about Hovannisian, he has become a symbol of this movement and they need to collaborate and consolidate their energy and resources. This movement will only succeed when all opposition forces, when all segments of society can mobilize and that will require dialogue, openness, concessions and not patriotic rhetorical statements that will lead us nowhere. Barring this, Hovannisian will lose his grassroots support, other opposition forces will lose their credibility and the people will be left alone in the square and the only option left for them will be to vote with their feet…by leaving and never coming back.