Friday, 08 March 2013

New Protest Movement Emerges in Armenia

Published in Field Reports

by Haroutiun Khachatrian (03/06/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

A new public movement named Barevolution, from the Armenian word Barev (Hello) is emerging in Armenia. Its initiator, Raffi Hovannisian, claims he won the presidential elections of February 18, and calls on their official winner, current President Serzh Sargsyan, to resign. Yet, this belief seems based on emotions rather than facts. The movement does not so far enjoy much support; however, Hovannisian hopes it will continue growing.



According to official data, Sargsyan won the presidential election in the first round by 58.64 percent of the votes. His reelection for a second five-year term has been recognized internationally and Sargsyan has received congratulations from Russia, France, China, the U.S. and the EU, and all its neighbors except Azerbaijan. Hovannisian, who came in second, is now challenging the official results.

Hovannisian, 54, was born in Fresno, California, and is the son of renowned historian Richard Hovannisian. He resides in Armenia since 1988, and became Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1992, but was sacked by the then President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Since then, he has obtained the status of a savior among many Armenians, notwithstanding his removal from official positions held under President Kocharyan in 2000, or confusing campaign messages ahead of the February presidential elections.

Opinion polls performed in December revealed that some 10 percent of the voters would vote for Hovannisian. Yet, according to the Central Election Commission’s official results, he obtained 36.74 percent of the votes. According to analysts, Hovannisian to a large extent received votes from people favoring other candidates, who were not nominated. The parliamentary parties Dashnaktsutiun, Prosperous Armenia and the coalition Armenian National Congress did not present candidates for the election. Yet, immediately after the official results were publicized, Hovannisian declared that he, not Sargsyan, had won the elections.

However, Hovannisian has never commented on the number of votes he obtained, instead claiming a “popular victory” and demanding Sargsyan’s resignation due to violations during the vote. This statement was based on the assumption that the limited violations revealed indicated a much larger pattern of election fraud. On March 5, Hovannisian decided to file an application to the Constitutional Court, the only organ capable of annulling the results of an election. The application was accompanied by a statement saying, “I know that I'll be rejected as the courts in Armenia are not independent.”

Meanwhile, Hovannisian has failed to address why all the representatives of his party and other non-coalition parties signed the election protocols and why they did not report on the violations earlier. In comparison, Ter-Petrosian reported a much larger number of violations in 2008. Hovannisian’s representatives have cited a lack of resources as the reason for the late reaction to violations. Yet, the narrative of election fraud also feeds into Hovannisian’s campaign message of Armenia heading in a wrong direction, manifested in high poverty rates and out-migration, and Hovannisian’s promise of quick fixes to these problems if elected president.

These beliefs also have followers among Diaspora Armenians. Californian singer Serj Tankian, a member of the famous group System of a Down, has written two letters to Sargsyan, while Vardan Petrosian, a famous French actor, arrived in Yerevan to take part in Hovannisian’s rallies. In Armenia, the movement is supported by several small groups, including some university students who have tried to organize a strike. Many speak of a political crisis in Armenia, but Hovannisian’s rallies are attended by much fewer participants than those in 2008, which nevertheless failed to bring down the government.

Still, the movement Hovannisian has initiated has brought a new element into Armenian politics. Whereas political opponents have traditionally been regarded enemies, Hovannisian has avoided overly polarizing rhetoric and underlines that he respects opposing opinions, in stark contrast to Ter-Petrosian’s 2008 characterization of the regime as “robbers.” When declaring the formation of his movement, Hovannisian stated, “I respect Serzh Sargsyan's contribution to the Karabakh war. Don’t use any name, this is the victory of the Armenian people. Just say ‘barev’. And what we are doing is called ‘revolution barev’,” giving rise to the English term “barevolution.”

On February 21, Hovannisian visited the presidential residence and had a friendly meeting with Sargsyan, which was an unprecedented event in the history of Armenia. Very little is known about their discussion, which lasted for more than one hour. On March 2, Hovannisian met with the leadership of the second largest parliamentary faction, Prosperous Armenia.

Hovannisian now finds himself in a difficult situation. On one hand, he has stated that the people’s victory – a change of the election result, will require a long struggle. On the other, he has said that Sargsyan’s second inauguration ceremony, scheduled for April 9, will not take place, although he has suggested few concrete avenues for action. His next rally at the Liberty Square in Yerevan is scheduled for March 8 and Hovannisian is travelling to the provinces for local meetings. Of the parliamentary factions, he enjoys the support only of his own Heritage party and Dashnaktsutiun.

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