By Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s main pro-government and opposition forces made on Thursday diametrically opposite assessments of President Serzh Sarkisian’s speech in parliament, differing sharply about his failure to mention the lingering fallout from the post-election unrest.
Sarkisian addressed the National Assembly for the first time in his current capacity on Wednesday amid expectations, fuelled by his own loyalists, of an impending amnesty for dozens of arrested opposition members. But he did not announce any pardons or make any mention of the country’s most serious political crisis in nearly a decade that was triggered by last February’s disputed presidential election.
Sarkisian spoke instead about other challenges facing Armenia and pledged to build a rule-law country with a competitive economy, independent courts and equal opportunities for all citizens. He also promised “drastic steps” that will eradicate widespread government corruption.
Senior lawmakers from Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) and its junior coalition partners defended the speech, saying that the president wants to consolidate the nation and promote a culture of political tolerance.
“There are many issues that can be called important,” said Samvel Nikoyan, an HHK member leading a parliamentary inquiry into the deadly March 1 clashes in Yerevan. “The president can hardly be able to address all of them in one speech.”
“I think that there was no news or commentary on this issue at that moment,” Nikoyan told RFE/RL, referring to the consequences of the unrest.
“When he talks about the consolidation of political forces, political stability in Armenia, a healthy political struggle, that is directly connected with March 1 and the activities of the radical opposition,” said Hrayr Karapetian, a deputy speaker of the parliament affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
According Naira Zohrabian, a parliament deputy from another governing party, Prosperous Armenia, Sarkisian may still make an important statement on the more than 70 supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian remaining in jail. “I don’t exclude that his forthcoming messages will carry concrete statements on concrete issues,” she said.
But deputies from Zharangutyun, the only opposition party represented in the National Assembly, also did not hide their disappointment with the speech. Anahit Bakhshian, the party’s nominal chairwoman, argued that pro-government lawmakers themselves had spread rumors that about the amnesty. She also criticized Sarkisian for skirting the March 1 clashes altogether.
“The families that suffered casualties on that day will definitely are not going to live with the enthusiasm mentioned by the president,” Bakhshian told RFE/RL. “They will dislike this country even more.”
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) was even more scathing. A spokesman for the HAK leader, Arman Musinian, dismissed the speech as a “cheap PR stunt.” “This speech proved that the authority simply has nothing to tell the society,” he said. “It was a very sad address.”
“The speech was written very badly,” claimed Aram Sarkisian, another HAK leader. Citing the ongoing trials of arrested oppositionists, he rejected as a “blatant lie” the president’s stated commitment to boosting judicial independence.
The idea of the amnesty was backed by the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) after it again discussed the political situation in Armenia earlier this week. The committee on Wednesday accused the Armenian authorities of failing to comply with PACE resolutions that demanded the immediate release of opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges.”
“While noting the positive steps made regarding establishment of an independent and credible inquiry, the Monitoring Committee remains extremely concerned regarding persons deprived of their liberty in relation to the events on 1 and 2 March 2008,” it said in a statement. The committee said it will meet again in December to decide whether to recommend the PACE to impose sanctions on Yerevan.