Armenian National Congress (HAK) staged one of the largest anti-government rallies Yerevan has seen since March 2008 in an impressive display that it remains the largest opposition force.
Admittedly, the opposition force had nothing to tell thousands of supporters, except for a call to get ready for “very serious events.”
Opposition leaders, euphoric over the recent wave of revolutions that swept away dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, warned Armenian authorities of similar unrest in Armenia.
“The plight of our people is no better than the plight of the peoples of those countries, and Armenia’s regime is no less dictatorial and hated than the regimes in those countries,” opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia’s first President told the crowd before it marched through downtown Yerevan.
HAK succeeded in gathering more than 10 thousand supporters. At least that’s the figure journalists and opposition supporters told me afterwards, even though the police issued a statement, saying it was about 5-6-thousand strong.
However, I don’t think the crowd, which wasn’t there during HAK’s previous rally, came because they now suddenly started to trust the opposition force more. The opposition movement hasn’t done anything to earn that trust over the past couple of years.
“Bread and Circuses” (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement.
The Armenian authorities, on the other hand, did everything in their power over the past two months, to make sure HAK gets more people in their rallies. This is how they helped:
- Inflation is raging in the country. I have mixed fillings of panic and despair every time I refill up my car’s fuel-tank, pay the utility bills or buy my way out of a supermarket. And I’m making a decent salary… imagine how is it for Armenia’s huge population of low-income families? We officially had over 9% inflation last year… to me it feels 30%.
- Yerevan’s new mayor banned street trade last month, potentially putting 10,000 people out of work in the capital. Protests followed. The city government made no effort to listen.
- Compulsory car insurance was introduced since January 1st, forcing 430 thousand car owners (most are young and aggressive males) pay an average of 30,000 AMD ($ 80 US) for it. Few see its benefits and view it as a new form of tax.
- New tax regulation came in force ending a legal loophole that allowed owners of imported cars drive in Armenia without customs clearance. This resulted in angry protests in northern regions of Armenia, where tens of thousands drive cars with Georgian number-plates. Protesters started raising issues with unfair import taxes, bureaucracy at customs offices, corruption. Putting everything in comparison with Georgia, where the tax and import environment is much more friendly resulted in another angry group.
- This week’s signing of a fresh coalition agreement was the last straw. It came as an indication, that the authorities feel safe and secure and are planning to stay in power for long.
Interestingly, with all the bad things the authorities have been trowing at the people, senior members of the ruling Republican Party (HHK) seem confident that the anti-government uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia will not spill over to Armenia. “There are no grounds for a social revolt in Armenia,” HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said on January 31.
With this mindset, the incumbent authorities seem determined to further worsen the situation, to a point, when there’s literally ‘no bread’…
In his speech, Ter-Petrosian said that the HAK has always felt “constrained” by the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the persisting threat of an Azerbaijani military offensive against Armenia and Karabakh. He hinted – HAK is still ‘constrained.’
“But the population, when drawn to the edge and having nothing to loose, may one day choose to ignore the opinion of HAK and even the Karabakh issue” Ter-Petrossian warned. (թքել թե՛ Կնոնգրեսի կարծիքի, եւ թե՛ նույնիսկ Ղարաբաղի վրա).
This was as close as ever to the realization and confession by the opposition leader, that:
- HAK has been deliberately keeping the political pressure low in Armenia because of being “constrained” by Karabakh issue,
- HAK feels the authorities are antagonizing the public so much, that it may spill into an uncontrollable unrest, like in Egypt, where no opposition movement was leading the crowd.
In old Roman terms – Ter-Petrossian warned the authorities, that HAK’s ‘circus’ might no longer work…
“The only way to avoid undesirable developments is pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections,” Ter-Petrossian said at the rally.
The conduct of fresh presidential and parliamentary elections has been the key HAK demand for the past three years.
It has been HAK’s answer to all the problems in Armenia. It has been pronounced by all members of the opposition force – economists, lawyers, human rights defenders, analysts, former foreign ministers and former prime ministers.
Ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, with presidential elections date set on 2013, this old, hackneyed, tired demand has become so totally uncool and pointless, that HAK ought to stop reiterating it and move on.