Saturday, August 2, 2008

Armenia: a new political climate is needed. A conflict manager's perspective

First published in March 8, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Armenia: A different political climate is needed
But there are no shortcuts to establishing it

Arthur Martirosyan is the program manager for the Former Soviet Union and Middle East at the Mercy Corps Conflict Management Group (CMG) based in Cambridge, Mass. In 14 years with CMG, he has been involved in conflict management efforts from Palestine to Georgia to China. He has also managed the Momentum program which helps teach conflict management skills to young Armenian professionals. Born in Tbilisi, Mr. Martirosyan earned his degrees from the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Yale Universities. He is an Armenian citizen. Mr. Martirosyan spoke with the Armenian Reporter’s Washington editor Emil Sanamyan by phone earlier this week.

Reporter: How would you formulate the pre- and post-election confrontation in Armenia from the conflict studies perspective?

Martirosyan: It is easy to recognize this confrontation as a zero-sum game. Both parties are playing one of those tough, macho games of chicken. This is sort of the game some might play with two cars racing toward each other at high speed. There are four potential outcomes: car 1 swerves and loses; car 2 swerves and loses; both swerve and it is difficult to judge who wins and who loses; or neither swerves and there is a crash – and this is what we have now.

This is a very dangerous game, because long-term there are no winners on the national

Reporter: How is this illustrated in Armenia’s case?

Martirosyan: In this particular case, Levon Ter-Petrossian, even before the election, announced that he had already won and was not willing to negotiate and talk to the other side. He was talking to the crowd in the Opera [Freedom] Square about “going to the end,” although this end-game was never defined.

And the government side was playing the same game, with an attitude that said, “We are the ones who have the power and we will dictate the rules of the game.”

The election results came in. As in the past there were certainly violations. But the international observers determined that they were limited in scope, more limited than in the past. And the opposition had an opportunity to request recounts, which it did, and which did not find evidence of widespread fraud.

Although before the vote, Mr. Ter-Petrossian ruled out a “revolutionary” scenario, he changed his rhetoric following the vote, and in fact declared that a “revolution” was under way.

This too fell into the zero-sum game scenario, and in such games the first to strike has more chances to win. The government waited patiently for ten days, hoping the crowds would disperse, which was probably a mistake, because the longer the crowd stayed together and showed its perseverance and commitment, the more difficult a resolution was becoming for everyone.

And then the government struck.

Reporter: It appears that stakes were continuously upped by both sides until the engine noise of military vehicles became audible at the ex-president’s residence....

Martirosyan: Well, this is the nature of this game. But the real danger is that the game is not over and might continue in a couple of weeks when the state of emergency is lifted. Unless, of course, one side successfully crushes the other. Even that would be a shaky victory, unless the game changes into a more cooperative arrangement.

You could see some evidence that Serge Sargsian was already offering cooperation right after the election, but unfortunately the radical opposition did not take that offer, with a coalition agreement sealed with more moderate forces.

Reporter: So can this game between the government and radical opposition be changed into something less confrontational?

Martirosyan: I don’t think it is possible right now, because the parties are not open to dialogue. The last statement from Ter-Petrossian includes preconditions that he is setting for the other side in order to engage in a dialogue. And those preconditions may not be acceptable to the other side.

So instead of putting the dialogue front and center, there is entrenchment on both sides. And the danger is that the sides might continue to play this game, no matter in whose favor the Constitutional Court rules later this week. This is especially likely should results be invalidated or if, as in 2003, the court validates the results but adds clauses that opposition could use as justification for future unrest.

Such a ruling would also set a very bad precedent, saying that any candidate unhappy with election results and capable of mobilizing ten thousand people or more can put sufficient pressure on the political system to get what he wants. This is not justifiable by any means.

Changing this situation would require a very different political climate, where political forces engage in a dialogue continuously before, during, and after elections and negotiate and agree on common, shared values.

These could be issues like free and fair elections, internal stability and security, the international image of the country. And they also negotiate the red lines – things that parties agree not to do under any circumstances.

None of that has happened in Armenia. So we are left paying the price for not having a strong civil society and structured political space, from which credible players could step up and encourage the parties to engage in a dialogue.

The political parties should work with the electorate and address their concerns year-round and not just at the time of elections. Only through such work can the protest electorate be brought into the political process and help stabilize it.

Unless there is such a climate, Armenia will be coming back to this issue in future elections as well. So we are still at the stage of state-building, that agenda is not yet accomplished.

Reporter: Do you see sufficiently influential and willing parties outside Armenia who could play a mediating role – by pushing parties away from confrontation and encouraging dialogue?

Martirosyan: Well, Ter-Petrossian is now clinging to the notion that the West should get involved. Unfortunately, I doubt that any Western governments or international organizations like the European Union will be able to successfully mediate this conflict, primarily because of a number of hidden drivers and interests in this conflict that would probably not be fully disclosed to outside mediators.

Individual players in the diaspora could also get involved – although not institutions.

But again that is unlikely to happen. Perhaps Russia could more successfully play such a role, but they do not appear to be interested so far and they are going through their own presidential transition.

Reporter: What about the hidden drivers you mention? Could you elaborate?

Martirosyan: Well on the surface, the opposition is trying to mobilize public dissatisfaction with the pace and structure of economic development, corruption, injustice, etc.

And what has happened so far is that Ter- Petrossian has largely succeeded in making this campaign personality-driven, and more about mud-slinging and disinformation than about issues.

The government failed to engage him on issues effectively, letting him escape into his own element of the open square. And Ter-Petrossian went on and filled the political vacuum felt by the protest electorate and was able to energize it.

But there are also real business interests behind the opposition. What concerns, fears, and interests these business groups have when it comes to distribution and redistribution of wealth?

I am sure it did not escape your attention that most of the stores that were looted belonged to businessmen seen as loyal to the government; on the other hand, the businesses supporting the opposition had been targeted by the government for tax inspections.

So there was this tit for tat. But if you look at the situation even deeper, considering that the incumbent President Robert Kocharian is on his way out, and he does have his own network of favorite businessmen, and that most likely not for all of them the succession would be a smooth one.

So they too have concerns and some of them, especially those seen close to Ter Petrossian, must have become very nervous.

Those aspects are not very open and the negotiations taking place in that field are not at all transparent. It may be more difficult for an outsider to understand, but it is easier for insiders.

Reporter: So you would argue that this election has not been solely personality driven? If economic interests are more prevalent, does that make a potential deal easier to strike?

Martirosyan: The fact that there are these real business interests at stake does make a potential deal more likely, but not inevitable of course. At this point, though, I doubt that a political deal could be negotiated any time soon, considering Ter-Petrossian’s defiance so far.

The question is if the government can put sufficient pressure on Ter-Petrossian for him to withdraw his current demands.

But this would not be a long-term solution of course. The political climate must change, but unfortunately there are no shortcuts to create a better system.

Every crisis comes with losses, lessons, and opportunities. More comprehensive analysis of lessons is warranted now. There is also an opportunity to move faster on some of the reforms since the current crisis to a degree was caused by the slow pace of change.

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