By Vartan Oskanian
Recently, history was made in Armenia. Not because the first non-Communist president was elected per se, but because he was elected democratically by a popularly chosen parliament.
Levon Ter-Petrosyan, 45, who has repatriated to Armenia from Aleppo, Syria in 1946 at the age of one, was elected by the 220-member Armenian Parliament, to become the President of the Presidium of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, defeating the Communist Party Chief Vladimir Movsisyan. Ter-Petrosian captured 140 votes against Movsisyan’s 80 on the fourth ballot. Ter-Petrosyan failed to gain the required 130 votes on the first three ballots.
During the last two months, for the first time in 70 years, Armenian people freely elected their representatives to the republic’s Supreme Soviet from a wide range of candidates representing a variety of political movements and organizations.
The Armenian Parliament is composed of 260 members. Of that number, 220 were elected during the elections of the past two months, thus completing the two-third presence for making constitutional changes. The remaining 40 members will be elected in the coming months.
From the earliest day of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist Party has played a major and guiding role in every aspect of Soviet life. It has operated on the principle of “democratic centralism,” a new addition to the dictionary of oxymora.
This is not the case anymore. Decentralization is the order of the day, and the decline of the Communist party’s political power in Armenia is in no event expressed more glaringly than in Vladimir Movsisyan’s decision to declare his candidacy for the Presidency.
The people have very little, if any, faith in the willingness or the ability of the party apparatus to act as an instrument of the new reforms.
On the other hand, Armenians have an overly-optimistic outlook and great hope that their destines will be settled through the newly elected Parliament.
When the word of Ter-Petrosyan’s election spread throughout Armenia, it generated a storm of joy, happiness and excitement, mixed with optimism and relief. Thousands celebrated outside the Armenian Parliament building on August 4 after Ter-Petrosyan’s election to the presidency of the republic’s highest legislative body.
The continued decline of the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party has its reflection in the growth of power of the institutions of popular government.
Indeed, the Armenian Parliament today is the highest authority in the republic. It makes the laws, ratifies treaties, declares war, proclaims martial law, dismisses and appoints ministers. It also elects the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Court.
On August 15, the Parliament elected another leader of the Armenian National Movement, Vazgen Manukyan, 44, as the new prime minister. He replaced Vladimir Markaryantz of the Communist Party, who along with his government, resigned earlier the same day. Manukian will form a new government soon.
Indeed, the leaders of the new government are of a new breed of politicians and intellectuals. But the problems facing them are the same old ones, created and consolidated by the irresponsible acts of the ruling party during the last 70 years. Political Opposition
The configuration of the political forces that are reshaping the Armenian political landscape, dominated by the Communist Party for more than seven decades, is of a rich and colorful blend of diverse groups representing a wide range of social and political beliefs.
While they are many in numbers, there is little difference in the most fundamental political issues. Almost all of them advocate Armenia’s independence, the return of Artsakh (Karabagh) to Armenia and free market economy.
The emergence of a barrage of political groups during a very short period of time has raised a great deal of concern among the public. “This is too much,” observed one citizen, “I think they all are striving for power.” But the most informed are less concerned. “It was only natural for this to happen,” said Armen Hovanisyan, a newly elected member of the Parliament. “These groups are the spontaneous expression of the diversity of the people’s political thinking, which was kept suppresses for so long. Eventually, however, they all will emerge into one or two major mainstream political groups.”
Today, the predominant among all is the Armenian National Movement (ANM), occupying 35 percent of the seats in the parliament. The Communist Party, though battered by ideological warfare, is still a major force, occupying 33 percent of the seats. Ter-Petrosyan’s election to the presidency only on the fourth ballot, is a clear and strong indication of the stormy days ahead.
Despite Ter-Petrosyan’s resignation from the Armenian National Movement right after his election, his name will be associated with that group. And his ability to handle the most pressing problems quickly and effectively, will determine ANM’s future status in the evolving political landscape.
The results of the last parliamentary elections are by no means an indication of the public’s alignment with existing political groups. The outcome was more of a defeat to the Communist Party rather than a victory to the others.
Although Armenia is a country with no democratic tradition, the reform process of the political systems is moving very quickly and the transition form one-party rule to a functioning democratic system is already in place. And the challenge is whether the competing groups will be tolerant enough to each other, not to undermine the democratic process. Independence
While the notion of independence has become a common denominator among all sectors of the population, the main difference remains on how and when to achieve it.
IN his stump speech to the Parliament before his election, Ter-Petrosyan said: “One thing is clear, and that is proven by the Latvian example, that the re-establishment of an independent government is not a spontaneous overnight act, but rather a continuing and persevering process of initiatives.”
The National Self-Determination Association (NSDA) vigorously opposes Ter-Petrosyan’s approach to the independence issue. The exiled leader of NSDA, Paruyr Hayrikyan, during a telephone interview with AIM from his home in California, blasted the new president for his visit to Moscow soon after his election. Hayrikyan is a staunch believer in Armenia’s outright independence without any permission from Moscow.
However, the Armenian Parliament has discussed three rival draft declarations presented to it. The first of the three called for outright independence and immediate secession from the Soviet Union. The second, a more moderate measure suggested a schedule for action toward future independence, while the third is a simple declaration of sovereignty within the Soviet Union.
On August 21, the Parliament adopted the second draft, passing a resolution declaring the beginning of the process to establish independent statehood. The resolution also changes the republic’s name from the “Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic” to the “Republic of Armenia.”
By this resolution it is expected the republic will remain part of the Soviet Union only during a transition period.
Given the composition of the Parliament where the Communists are 33 percent, the passage of the resolution by a vote of 183-2, is a clear indication of the mounting pressure form the people for moving toward independence. Economy
It is common knowledge that the Soviet Union’s economy is in shambles. Armenia’s economy is even in worse shape. Next to the problems common to the Union republics, Armenia further suffers from the recent devastating earthquake, the Azerbaijani blockade and the massive and frequent strikes.
Due to the earthquake, 170 enterprises have been affected, 130 of which have been completely nullified. Altogether, 1.9 billion rubles worth of productive capability has been incapacitated.
Armenia’s economic progress is very much contingent upon the political conditions facing the republic both from inside and outside. The domestic stability is crucial for foreign participation in Armenia’s economic progress.
Armenia is very much dependent on the other Union republics. All of its oil, gas and other necessities are imported form the other republics. Sixty percent of its consumer goods are also imported form outside, and most of them are brought in through the Azerbaijani railroad.
As Armenia’s new government strives for independence and vigorously pursues the return of Artsakh to Armenia, its economic priorities become hostage to its political ambitions. Artsakh
Another major problem facing the new leadership is the issue of Artsakh. On August 13, Tass, the official Soviet news agency, announced that Armenia’s new President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov will meet in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, in the presence of their Georgian counterpart to discuss the issue of Artsakh. On August 14, Ter-Petrosyan officially denied the news saying that it does not correspond to the reality.
Real or not, the latest scenario truly reflects the difficult position that the new president is in on the Artsakh issue. On one hand, he feels the need of putting the Artsakh issue in its proper perspective because he understands that Artsakh has become he understands that Artsakh has become a symbol of national aspirations and without its return to Armenia, people feel impotent of doing anything else. “It is our highest priority now to re-establish the domestic stability,” said Ter-Petrosyan during an interview on Soviet television. On the other hand, he understands even better that the party that brought him to power had started as a movement to pursue the return of Artsakh to Armenia mobilizing the entire population behind this noble cause, which eventually transformed into an all-national Armenian movement.
Although the last two years have amply demonstrated the limits of Armenia’s political and economic capabilities, it will be politically damaging for the new leadership to make even temporary concessions on the Artsakh issue for the purpose of domestic stability and economic prosperity. Diaspora
It has been sometime now that the three Diaspora parties have been making strides into Armenia. The most notable among them has been the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). On August 8, right after Ter-Petrosyan’s invitation to the Diaspora parties to come to Armenia, ARF officially announced its organizational presence in Armenia, promising to establish a homeland headquarters, and official publication and an information center. There is no official word yet from the other parties, nevertheless they are actively trying to establish a strong foothold in the motherland.
Eventually, all three will establish themselves in Armenia and start to fight for a piece of the pie in the government and, ultimately, for the total control of the government. For the last 70 years, ARF considered itself a government in exile. Now that it has returned home that status will now soon change to an opposition party.
The ARF enjoys great deal of support and sympathy among the people in Armenia mostly for its association with the Independent Republic of 1918-20 and also for its firm stand against the Communist regime during the last 70 years.
Once the dust settles from the storm of anti-Communist bonanza, the parties will be judged not by what they have to offer today their political platforms are actual behavior for the Republic’s progress and well being. The Military
The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Artsakh, the pogroms of Sumgait and Baku and most importantly Moscow’s indifference or its biased interference in the conflict, has forced Armenians to take the law in their own hands. Losing the faith in Moscow’s willingness and ability to defend and protect its borders and people, Armenians resorted to forming their own military groups. Next to the Armenian National Army (ANA), the largest and the most organized, several other military groups were formed, each under the jurisdiction of a political group.
On July 25, Gorbachev issued a decree ordering armed groups to disband in 15 days or face a military crackdown.
Ter-Petrosyan, soon after his election, successfuly convinced the Central Government during his meetings with Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin in Moscow, of the new Parliament’s ability to resolve the issue on its own and in a short period of time, thus putting himself in an extremely challenging position. Indeed the task of disbanding the armed groups or unifying them in one unit under the jurisdiction of the Parliament, is the ultimate test for the new Parliament’s legitimacy, power, respect, and above all for Armenia’s willingness to walk the path of democracy and decency.
Razmik Vasilyan, the commander of the Armenian National Army who claims to have 100,000 registered members, during an interview with AIM last January, pledged to put the army under the jurisdiction of a popularly-elected parliament. So did Vazgen Sarkisyan, the leader of the Armenian National Movement’s military arm. Although Ter-Petrosyan has the ability to force the ANM armed group to disband or join the ANA, but it is doubtful that he will do so before he is assured that the others will follow suit.
So far, there is a strong resistance from the other groups to surrender their arms or join the National Army.
The issue of armed groups is a major concern for both Moscow and the Armenian people, but for different reasons. Moscow doesn’t want to see military groups outside its control, and the people in Armenia are disturbed by the growing episodes of armed robberies and other incidents either in the name of those groups or by the members of the groups themselves.
Even if Ter-Petrosyan succeeds in uniting all the individual groups into one unit under the jurisdiction of the Parliament, he still faces the difficult task of convincing Gorbachev to allow the existence of such a unit outside Moscow’s control. Relations With Turkey
One of the issues that divides the Diasporan parties from the local Armenian parties most, is the form and the scope of Armenia’s future relations with its neighbor Turkey. Soviet Armenians have a more conciliatory attitude toward Turkey, while the Diasporan parties are aggressively opposed.
There is a general consensus among the Armenian leaders, intellectuals and the people at large on opening negotiations and economic co-operation with Turkey. In its platform, the Armenian National Movement advocated the normalization of relations with Turkey, without sidestepping the issue of the Genocide and Armenia’s territorial claims.
The blurry line drawn by the ANM between the degree of Armenia’s willingness to normalize relations with Turkey and the extent of Armenia’s willingness to normalize relations with Turkey and the extent of Turkey’s desire to compromise, was strongly criticized by the Diasporan parties, namely by the Armenian Democratic Liberals (ADL) and the ARF.
The political restructuring in Armenian is the dominating event in the Armenian life today, and its impetus will last further than any other event.
Indeed, a new phase of history is gestating in the bowels of the old. The chief question, however, is not whether the newly-elected parliament and its president can solve Armenia’s problems, but whether they will be able to do what is needed to establish a framework for national co-operation that will prepare the nation for the consuming tasks that will challenge Armenia in the next several years.
It is a national responsibility, that the Armenian people give the new leadership the chance.