Aram Sargsian, a former prime minister of Armenia who currently heads an extra-parliamentary opposition party, believes that the distinction between what is “real” and “false” opposition in the South Caucasus country should be drawn along the line of political parties’ attitude towards a Russian-led bloc that Armenia formally joined last year.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am), the politician known for his pro-Western views expressed his party’s readiness to cooperate with other opposition forces ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, but insisted that they can form a bloc only with parties that are clearly against Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
“We are going to take part in the elections not to win a few seats in parliament but to achieve real changes, to change the current government,” said Sargsian, who headed Armenia’s government for seven months after Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, his elder brother, was assassinated along with seven other statesmen in a terrorist attack on parliament on October 27, 1999.
Sargsian, who has been in opposition to successive governments since resigning as prime minister and currently heads the Hanrapetutyun party, links Armenia’s future development with its greater integration with the West, including the European Union. In this regard, he believes that many of the nation’s current woes are connected with the EEU, a customs union of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, that the politician views as a regressive undemocratic environment.
“If an opposition party says that the EEU does no good to Armenia and declares that its first step in the event of coming to power will be at least quitting this union, not necessarily joining the European Union, then this party is truly oppositional,” Sargsian said.
The politician stressed that the same concerned the Armenian National Congress (HAK) party led by ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosian whose unsuccessful presidential bid he supported in 2008 only to grow disillusioned with the latter’s “pro-Russian” stance and quit the bloc later.
“The HAK must state that the Eurasian Union is not a fait accompli, but is something that is detrimental to Armenia and can be overcome. If the HAK does that, I see no other obstacles [to cooperation],” he said, excluding cooperation otherwise.
“In that case they won’t be a real opposition party to me. Because I see this as the only point for real opposition. Truly opposition parties should advocate withdrawal from the EEU. Otherwise, what’s the difference between [President] Serzh Sarkisian and them? Both will want to serve [Russian President Vladimir] Putin within the framework of the EEU,” he argued.
Senior HAK lawmaker Aram Manukian, meanwhile, described such an approach as wrong. Reacting to Sargsian’s remarks, he said that the goal of the unification of opposition forces should be “leading the country out of the current situation”, while preconditions in such alliances, according to him, should be excluded and “even serious differences should be put aside.”
Furthermore, Manukian believes that it is wrong to pit political forces in Armenia against Russia’s authorities. “I don’t consider it appropriate and correct,” he said.
Armenia had negotiated an association agreement with the European Union and was on track to sign it when President Sarkisian made a volte-face in September 2013 announcing the country’s decision to join the Kremlin-advocated bloc.
The Armenian leadership denied any pressure coming from Moscow over the sudden change of heart. Only one parliamentary party and several extra-parliamentary parties and civic groups then staged street protests against the decision attended by several hundred people. The Armenian legislature dominated by Sarkisian’s ruling party subsequently voted overwhelmingly to approve the country’s accession to the EEU from 2015.
Despite the promise of drastic economic improvement in the common market, no significant progress followed amid the continuing economic decline in Russia. Even some Armenian officials acknowledge that so far the country has been unable to fully benefit economically from its closer ties with Russia and other post-Soviet nations due to its higher taxes and higher transportation costs in the absence of a shared land border with the rest of the union.
Since last December Armenia has been negotiating a new, less ambitious deal with the European Union that will have no free trade-related component due to Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led economic grouping.