By Anna Saghabalian
Opposition leader Stepan Demirchian appeared on Wednesday to assert his pro-Western credentials by publicly contrasting multimillion-dollar U.S. assistance to Armenia and Russia’s takeover of Armenian state assets as part of a controversial debt settlement.
Demirchian, who was President Robert Kocharian’s main challenger in the 2003 presidential election, also claimed that the Armenian authorities are only “imitating” integration into European structures. The remarks are the latest indication of a pro-Western tilt in the Armenian opposition’s foreign policy orientation.
“We support strategic partnership with Russia,” Demirchian told reporters when asked to outline his and his Artarutyun (Justice) alliance’s foreign policy priorities. “At the same time we are against deals like the equities-for-debt,” he said, referring to the 2002 swap agreement whereby Russia wrote off Armenia’s $100 million debt in return for acquiring five state-run enterprises.
One of them is the Yerevan-based Mars electronics plant which was managed by Demirchian until the change of ownership. Despite having modern equipment and technology, the plant had operated at a fraction of its capacity since the Soviet collapse. According to Demirchian, it stopped to operate altogether shortly after being handed over to the Russians.
“We also highly appreciate the assistance which is provided by the United States of America in the establishment of democracy and development of a market-based economy in Armenia,” the Artarutyun leader added in his answer to the question.
He also made the point that Kocharian’s administration can not bring Armenia closer to Europe because it is not committed to democracy and the rule of law. “The process must not have an imitational character,” he said.
The remarks reflect a broader change in the discourse of Armenia’s leading opposition groups. They have clearly been buoyed by the success of Western-backed revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and now count on U.S. and EU support in their efforts to oust Kocharian.
Artashes Geghamian, another popular oppositionists previously oriented toward Russia, has made the most dramatic foreign policy U-turn. He told supporters late last month that America “must be the main pillar of the democratization and strengthening of the Republic of Armenia.”
Demirchian denied allegations by pro-Kocharian politicians and media that the Armenian opposition is becoming a tool in the hands of external powers in its penchant for regime change. “We primarily rely on our people without underestimating external factors,” he said.
Demirchian added that Artarutyun remains adamant in refusing to recognize Kocharian’s legitimacy and insisting on a “referendum of confidence” in the president. But he was vague on how the alliance plans to force such a vote. “Let me not talk about concrete steps and timetables,” he said.
Some Yerevan newspaper have quoted anonymous opposition sources as saying that Artarutyun will launch this week a campaign of anti-Kocharian street protests. A similar campaign staged by Artarutyun and Geghamian’s National Unity Party last spring failed to muster sufficient public support and ended in failure.
Demirchian sought to cool the speculation, saying that rallies will be held only “if necessary.”