- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 January 23 , 2004 

Opposite Oppositions: Why no "rose revolution" grows in Armenia

The Georgian opposition put their man in the President's chair

March 2003: The incumbent president of Armenia is re-elected in a critically flawed election. Thousands fill the icy streets of Yerevan to shout their protests and vows of overthrow. But soon they retire to the passivity of pre-election status quo, sputtering into silence after a few relatively harmless weeks.

November 2003: Thousands march in the capital of Georgia, Armenia's northern neighbor, to protest blatantly rigged parliamentary elections. By the end of the month, Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze has quit following a bloodless democratic coup; in early January, a dynamic young U.S.-educated lawyer is overwhelmingly elected the country's new president, creating an opportunity for real change.

Why the radically different outcomes in the two countries - and does Georgia's "rose revolution" foreshadow a shift in the political tectonic plates in Armenia?

A political perfect storm brought about change in Georgia. During his 11 years in power, Shevardnadze headed up a crooked regime that corruption watchdog Transparency International recently ranked 124th - out of 133 countries surveyed - in its Corruptions Perceptions Index. Worse, his government failed to provide even the most basic services - like water and heat on a regular basis - to the country's citizens. On another front, the Georgian opposition was able to bury its differences to unify behind the young, charismatic and U.S.-trained Mikhail Saakashvili, who effectively harnessed public rage following the November 2 parliamentary elections. The unwillingness of the Georgian military and security forces - which hadn't been paid for months - to go head-to-head with its own people, coupled by Shevardnadze's pledge to not allow the crisis to escalate to bloodshed, fuelled the ambitions of the opposition.

The Armenian opposition raised their leader's banner, but not much else.

Meanwhile, Shevardnadze's vital international friends let it be known that they were tired of watching him guide Georgia down the steep slope of chaos. In July, the United States - finally relinquishing its lingering admiration for Shevardnadze for his role in ending the Cold War - read Shevardnadze the riot act, by sending former U.S. secretary of state James Baker (Shevardnadze's counterpart in Cold War negotiations) to impress upon him the importance of free and fair elections. A few months later, American aid to Georgia was selectively cut, to protest the slowing pace of reform. As momentum for change accelerated in November, both the U.S. and Russia pressured the Georgian leader to end the crisis peacefully.

In contrast, Armenia's brief bid for revolutionary change earlier in the year took a different path. Endemic corruption hasn't prevented the Armenian government, headed up by President Robert Kocharyan, from providing for the most basic needs of its citizens. The government's economic mismanagement and thievery has been obscured by massive injections of aid funding - enough to make Armenia one of the biggest recipients of aid in the world, on a per capita basis. Persistent rumors that the president played a role in the October 1999 parliament massacre - which conveniently did away with the core of the opposition - are despairingly dismissed as politics as usual, and didn't factor into the country's presidential elections. Compared to the Georgians' visceral and personal hatred of Shevardnadze, dislike of Kocharyan in Armenia is lukewarm at worst.

Meanwhile, Armenia's deeply divided opposition failed to effectively rally protestors last year to the boiling point. Opposition leader Stepan Demirchyan, whose father was a Brezhnev-era Communist Party boss, gets by on flashy good looks, and the reflected glow of the popularity of his late father - but doesn't have the charisma and political savvy to spearhead a revolution, or, say, to pilot protestors through acres of barbed wire and armed government troops. Public perception in Armenia is that many members of the opposition want power only to get their piece of the political pie, rather than to bring about bona fide change; in contrast, Saakashvili is perceived as a clean politician who is more focused on the best interests of his country, rather than himself.

Fear of reprisal has prevented many would-be activists in Armenia from speaking out. Kocharyan's ironclad grip on the local media - in contrast to a thriving independent media in Georgia - has reinforced the public mood of weary resignation.

Substantive change has been further hampered in Armenia - somewhat ironically - by its Diaspora. The politically powerful Armenian Diaspora - multiple times as many Armenians live outside the country as within its borders - has largely ignored the realities of Armenia's current political environment, for the most part preferring to focus on, for example, Turkish recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Massive waves of Diaspora aid has gone toward building roads in Nagorno-Karabakh and renovating museums in downtown Yerevan, in effect supporting the present government in Armenia, with seemingly little recognition of the damage being done to the long-term prospects for democracy in the country. One of the few strong voices for change in the Armenian Diaspora, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Raffi Hovannisian, was prevented from participating in last year's presidential elections based on a highly dubious ruling by a government-controlled court.

The real work on change is just starting in Georgia. It remains to be seen whether Georgia's revolutionaries can capitalize on a unique set of circumstances to bring about lasting improvement to a political culture of cynicism and corruption. But Armenia hasn't even started down the road of change - and seems more likely to substitute children's fruit juice for its famous brandy than it is to undergo a transformation analogous to Georgia's anytime soon.

Kim Iskyan is a freelance journalist and consultant based in Yerevan. He frequently provides comment and analysis on post-Soviet issues. His work has appeared in the Moscow Times, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune and other publications.

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