Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian demanded President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation but stopped short of announcing a new campaign of non-stop anti-government protests as he rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan for the first time in almost a year on Saturday.
Ter-Petrosian made clear that his Armenian National Congress (HAK) needs the support of other major opposition forces, including Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), to take advantage of what he described as an “extremely favorable moment” for regime change.
Addressing his supporters on the sixth anniversary of a deadly post-election unrest, the former president also hinted at his support for Armenia’s accession to the Russian-led Customs Union. “Clearly, Armenia’s membership of the Customs Union is irreversible and European integration impossible in the foreseeable future,” he declared in what looked like a fresh overture to Moscow.
“Accordingly, the HAK and any other political force must base their political calculations on this undeniable reality because neglecting it … could lead to serious mistakes and dangerous consequences,” he said.
Armenia should join the union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan with a new and “dignified” government that would be able to make the most of its benefits, added Ter-Petrosian. It will be a “voiceless vassal” in the Russian-led bloc if Sarkisian holds on to power, he claimed.
Armenia - Opposition supporters rally in Yerevan's Liberty Square, 1Mar2014.
In his earlier public statements, Ter-Petrosian poured scorn on Sarkisian for unexpectedly ditching last August a planned Association Agreement with the EU in favor of Customs Union membership. At the same time he sought to rationalize strong Russian pressure on Sarkisian that was instrumental in the foreign policy U-turn. He said that the EU itself provoked that pressure with its “reckless policy.”
Ter-Petrosian and his party were widely expected to use Saturday’s rally for launching their first offensive against Sarkisian since he secured reelection in a disputed presidential election held in February 2013. Some HAK supporters expected to see the kind of street protests that nearly brought the charismatic ex-president back to power in 2008. They were buoyed by the success of the recent anti-government uprising in Ukraine.
“I am deeply convinced that the time is ripe for regime change in Armenia because all prerequisites for that exist right now,” Ter-Petrosian told the crowd that gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. He said that public discontent with the current authorities has reached an all-time high over the past year due to sizable price hikes and unpopular government measures such an ongoing pension reform. He also pointed to growing cooperation among the HAK and the three other opposition parties represented in parliament as well as Sarkisian’s perceived loss of international support.
“Serzh Sarkisian’s regime has never been so weak,” claimed Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrosian’s right-hand man leading the HAK’s parliamentary faction. “One or two more such rallies and we will thrust Serzh Sarkisian into the annals of history,” Zurabian said in his speech.
Ter-Petrosian stated, however, that he is not yet launching a campaign of sustained street protests because he believes that the HAK cannot topple Sarkisian without the backing of the three other parties, among them Tsarukian’s BHK. He said he respects their preference of a “gradual solution” starting from the resignation of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and his cabinet.
Therefore, continued Ter-Petrosian, the HAK will likely hold its next rally only after the four opposition forces agree to jointly propose a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the government. They have already held a series of talks on the matter but reached no agreement so far.
Ter-Petrosian further made clear that he does not favor the kind of violent actions that brought down the ruling regimes in countries like Ukraine and Egypt. Armenia cannot afford “the luxury of civil war” because of its small size and the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan, he explained.
“Therefore, nobody has the right to drive us into adventurism … Regime change is a serious process that requires not a frantic outburst but cold calculation, wisdom and discipline,” said Ter-Petrosian.