By Anna Saghabalian and Hrach Melkumian
An opinion poll has indicated strong popular opposition to the Armenian government’s plans to send non-combat troops to Iraq which are expected to be endorsed by parliament later this week.
The findings of the survey were released on Tuesday amid more protests against the imminent deployment voiced by opposition leaders and prominent artists and intellectuals. Dozens of them gathered in Yerevan in what appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to get the Armenian parliament to block the dispatch of some 50 military doctors, demining experts and truck drivers sought by President Robert Kocharian.
The National Assembly, which is dominated by Kocharian supporters, is scheduled to debate the issue on Friday. The legislators will be asked to allow the government to sign up to an agreement between Poland and 18 other countries that have troops in a Polish-led multinational division controlling south-central Iraq.
The Constitutional Court ruled on December 8 that the agreement does not contradict the Armenian constitution. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian argued that Armenia must join the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq in order to avoid international isolation.
However, opponents counter that the deployment could spark retaliatory attacks on tens of thousands of Armenians living in Iraq and other Arab nations. “We have gathered to voice our condemnation of those who are resorting to this anti-national and risky action,” Khoren Palian, a prominent choir master, told the roundtable discussion.
“We remember Diasporas only when we need their money during telethons,” said writer Perj Zeytuntsian. “But when their lives are in jeopardy, we don’t care.”
Vazgen Manukian, one of the leaders of the opposition Artarutyun alliance taking part in the meeting, said the Armenian authorities want to forge closer links with the West they must hold free elections and respecting human rights. “This is how we must keep pace with the world,” he said.
“Only dictators that do not care about the opinion of their people can behave like this,” charged another Artarutyun leader, Grigor Harutiunian.
According to the opinion poll conducted by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), 70.5 percent of Armenians are against the Iraq deployment and only 15.6 percent are in favor. ACNIS said two thirds 100 political and public policy experts interviewed separately also spoke out against the move.
Interestingly, the polls suggests the most common fear of ordinary people is that even a cosmetic military presence could make Armenia a target of terrorist attacks by Islamist militants. Only 13 percent of respondents cited the security of Iraq’s Armenian community.
Manukian again claimed that by committing military personnel for Iraq Kocharian’s administration expects U.S. support for its efforts to cling to power. Representatives of the three political parties represented in Kocharian’s cabinet were not on hand to respond to the claims despite being invited to the gathering.
It was instead attended by a diplomat from the U.S. embassy in Yerevan. He declined to comment, however.
Most local observers believe that the Armenian parliament will allow the government to go ahead with the deployment. Speaking to reporters after the Constitutional Court ruling, Sarkisian said he believes the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians “will not make emotional decisions.”
Ohan Durian, a famous Armenian music conductor, said the opponents of the Iraq mission should therefore rally supporters outside the parliament building on Friday. “We must make it clear that we disagree with our dictatorial leaders and are friends of the Arab people,” he said.
Another oppositionist, Aram Sargsian, suggested that they directly appeal to the administration of President George W. Bush. “Let us explain to them why Armenia can not participate in that action,” he said.