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5.8.16

Sasna Tsrer: The ARF Position in Context

Haig Kaiserian
 
Like most Armenians who followed the developments in Erebuni over the past two weeks, I am deeply passionate about the status of Armenia—our nation, as well as its inhabitants.
On July 17, an armed group calling themselves the “Sasna Tsrer”, primarily made up of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh/NKR) war veterans, stormed the Armenian Police Yerevan City Patrol Regiment Building in the suburb of Erebuni, announcing the start of an “uprising.” They took officers as hostages, demanding immediate regime change with the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and the release of “political prisoners”, especially the leader of the “Founding Parliament” movement, Jirair Sefilyan, himself an Artsakh war veteran.
On July 31—after days of public anti-government protests, the releasing of all hostages in stages and several shootouts causing injuries on both sides and the death of two police officers—the remaining members of the Sasna Tsrer surrendered to police, stating they have “done their bit” and it was now up to the people to demand and bring about the necessary changes to Armenia.
During the two weeks of the Sasna Tsrer occupation, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which is currently in a de facto coalition with Sarkisian’s government, released an initial statement after several press appearances by leaders of the party announcing its position by declaring that there is another “way out” of Armenia’s troubles. They released a second statement condemning the heavy-handed approaches of the police. At the conclusion of the occupation, another statement was released by ARF Bureau member, Armen Rustamyan, who called for “no retribution” against the Sasna Tsrer.
As an active member of this party who follows the ARF’s every decision under a microscope, I consider these statements—and the ARF’s position overall on the events relating to the Sasna Tsrer—to be the most responsible, and therefore, most correct. But, unfortunately, this position has also been the most misconstrued in this entire debate.
This is partially because the statements were likely read by most without taking into context the activities of the ARF over the past year in Armenian politics. This could be because the aforementioned “context” was never quite understood—I accept that the ARF position on politics in Armenia is not as populist as storming a Police headquarters and demanding the resignation of an unpopular president.
This article allows me the opportunity to paraphrase the ARF position on the politics of Armenia, the steps it has taken to manufacture change to the status quo, and link this position to the situation in Erebuni with the following points:
– The ARF agrees that corruption is rife in Armenia, and, with the people, it has lost faith in the current structure of governance that rules over the country.
– This is proven by the roadmap the ARF drew and passed by referendum, along with the sitting government, to bring about significant constitutional reforms to Armenia.
– These reforms will convert Armenia from a presidential system of governance (where one person has the major say) to a parliamentary system of governance (where the collective within the Parliament have the major say).
– These reforms also mean the formation of a Judiciary independent of the government, which is not currently the case.
– Among other things, the reforms further mean the drawing of a new electoral code to prevent vote rigging that the ARF itself has complained about for many years.
A few questions I suggest we ask ourselves at this point, prior to continuing with the points.
Question 1: If the ARF was satisfied with the current form of government and was simply kowtowing to the President, as critics suggest, why would the party suggest and champion Constitutional reforms based on taking power away from a president and placing it into the hands of a collective?
Question 2: If the ARF believed the current justice system was free and fair, and was appropriately dealing with oligarchy, monopolies and corruption, why would the party have suggested and championed changes which makes the Judiciary independent of the government?
Question 3: If the ARF believed that every vote at elections was based on the free and fair will of the people, why would it have suggested and championed a tightening of the electoral code to ensure greater oversight at polling stations?
If these questions are asked with honesty, and without anti-ARF tinted glasses, they would become rhetorical. This is my intention.
Back to the points:
These reforms passed in a referendum earlier this year.
As unpopular as the ARF knew the decision would be, the party then decided to join in a de facto Coalition with the current government of Serge Sarkisian’s Republican Party, arguing that it was a necessary step to ensure the necessary oversight to implement the reforms within the nominated timeline—gaining critical momentum in the May 2017 parliamentary elections and ending with the 2018 presidential election.
As part of the agreement to join the government, the ARF was able to name three ministers currently serving in the nation’s government. Without going into arduous detail on each of their many policies focused on the party’s blue-collar roots, these Ministers have taken to their responsibilities by maintaining a critical and commendable consistency with the goals the ARF had when promoting the constitutional reforms.
For example, the Minister for the Economy (Artsvik Minasyan), has begun working on the breaking up of monopolies disproportionately taking advantage of the nation’s wealth. Another example, the Minister for Education (Levon Mkrtchyan) is working on the de-politicization of schools, to ensure state-employed teachers have free will to vote for whomever they want without fear for their future.
Based on the previous point, the work is on track.
Also, the timeline is on track—the May 2017 parliamentary elections are when these reforms will pass their first major implementation milestone. The 2018 presidential elections will see the election of a person to a ceremonial (rather than all-powerful) President’s position. This will see the reforms completed.
The above is the “context” that is critical to the ARF’s position regarding the actions of the Sasna Tsrer. More points bringing the ARF context into the situation in Erebuni:
Considering all of the above, when the Sasna Tsrer decided to implement regime change by the immediate resignation of the President through armed “uprising,” the ARF could not possibly agree.
Firstly, what would such an unlikely immediate resignation of a president mean? Would Armenia elect another all-powerful president instead, but one more popular than Sarkisian? An honest observer will at least admit that there was a lack of political planning to this populist action from military men, which would surely derail the well thought-out reforms the ARF has been successful in pushing.
Secondly, the ARF has experienced the frustrations of the Sasna Tsrer before with governments of the past. There were the early 1990’s, when then-President Levon Ter Petrosian expelled the ARF from Armenia and jailed its leading members. If there ever was a party currently active in Armenian political life which has a proven track record of knowing how to use a gun, it is the 125-year-old ARF. It has fought Sultans, led uprisings against Bolsheviks, avenged Pashas, and liberated Sartarabads(*). The ARF has luminaries like Gevorg Chavoush, Garegin Njteh, Antranik Pasha, Tatul Krpeyan, and Shahen Meghrian.
Despite this history, it has always preferred to protect Armenia’s statehood. Critically, protecting Armenia’s statehood (the nation) does not mean protecting Armenia’s government (the leaders of the day). This is why the ARF did not raise arms against Ter Petrosian and his stooges.
And more recently, when the Armenia-Turkey Protocols would have sinfully rerouted the direction of justice for the Armenian Genocide and threatened Artsakh’s independence, the ARF fought the political fight. This was without resorting to pointing weapons at those taking the Armenian state down the path of destruction. Per the ARF, the Armenian State is untouchable. The ARF believes governments and governance can change through politics, not by diminishing the nation’s statehood.
The ARF was successful in politically fighting these fights, and it wants to win this fight politically also, hence why it has pushed the constitutional reforms agenda.
The ARF accurately denounced the actions of the Sasna Tsrer. They didn’t denounce their frustrations, as the same frustrations led the ARF down the path of constitutional reforms. They didn’t denounce the people’s calls for a fair democracy, a more representative government, free elections, or a better Judiciary, as the same calls by the ARF led it down the path of constitutional reforms.
And regarding the Artsakh undertone that has crept into the Erebuni debate—that lands and Artsakh independence was about to be surrendered by the government—the ARF, through its peak World Congress and recent reaffirmations by its hierarchy in Armenia, made it clear that it is against any return of sovereign Artsakh land or threats to Artsakh’s statehood. Let’s be clear here, there will never be anybody in an ARF leadership position, who would be able to remain in an ARF leadership position, if they tried to argue for the return of sovereign Artsakh lands or surrendering the independence of Artsakh to Azerbaijan. This means that a government of Armenia, which includes the ARF as its de facto partner, would not be able to negotiate away our just rights in Artsakh. We should all take comfort in that fact.
I am glad that the ARF’s wishes that the Sasna Tsrer episode would end with the surrender of these men to authorities came to fruition, avoiding further bloodshed.
I trust, like the ARF, that the authorities are honest that these men will be treated lightly for their offences, considering their service to country. And despite condemnable and condemned failings on this front so far, I further trust that the state police will allow the people to freely and safely demonstrate for their rights in Armenia’s streets.
I do wish for these people to get behind the constitutional reforms as the only peaceful path that has so far been tabled to the democracy Armenia craves and deserves.
My last point is regarding the key concern some people and other opposition groups had to the suggested constitutional reforms, which form the context behind the ARF’s position on Erebuni. They are concerned that these reforms would somehow lead to more years of Serge Sarkisian in power, or the continued power concentration for his cohorts.
I understand these concerns. Therefore, I think it would be appropriate and timely, after the dust has settled from the Sasna Tsrer saga, for President Sarkisian to personally announce (like a spokesperson of his party has already been done), that he will not seek public office in Armenia after his current term is up.
The rest is up to the people, as it should be.
The ARF is with the people. It just has a different roadmap than Sasna Tsrer to the changes needed in Armenia. This roadmap is peaceful and deserves a chance, as it ultimately upholds the statehood of the Republic of Armenia.

"The Armenian Weekly," August 3, 2016

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(*) The battle of May 1918 was not fought for the liberation of Sardarabad ("Armeniaca").

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