ARF leaves Armenian government, citing disagreements on Turkey policy (updated)

by Vincent Lima

Published: Monday April 27, 2009

Armen Rustamian, representative of the ARF’s Supreme Body of Armenia, announcing the party's withdrawal from Armenia's coalition government, Yerevan, April 27, 2009. Melik Baghdasarian / Photolure

Yerevan - The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) on April 27 withdrew from Armenia's governing coalition, citing "insurmountable disagreements on matters of principle" regarding Armenia's foreign policy. A party declaration referred specifically to the timing and substance of a joint statement of the foreign ministries of Armenia and Turkey on the eve of April 24.

The withdrawal of the party, which controls 16 seats in the 131-seat parliament, will not cause the collapse of the four-party coalition, but has significantly expanded the parliamentary opposition, which until now included only the Heritage Party, with seven seats, and one or two unaffiliated members of parliament.

"The ARF can acquiesce in many things, but not when it comes to issues and ideas it holds sacred," Armen Rustamian, representative of the ARF's Supreme Body of Armenia, told reporters on April 27. Mr. Rustamian, a member of the National Assembly, has resigned as chairperson of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Relations.

Also resigning from portfolios allocated to the party through the coalition agreement are Minister of Education Spartak Seyranian, Minister of Agriculture Aramais Grigorian, and Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Arsen Hambartsumian.

Deputy speaker of parliament Hrair Karapetian and the chairperson of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense, National Security, and Internal Affairs Artur Agabekian submitted their resignations on Monday.

[Under a parliamentary rule adopted some months ago with ARF support, members of opposition parties are to chair some parliamentary committees. The rule was meant to come into effect with the next parliament, but the Speaker invoked it on behalf of the coalition, “urging the Armenian Revolutionary Federation faction to withdraw, while being in opposition, Armen Rustamian's and Artur Agabekian's resignations.” The ARF agreed and the two men will retain their posts.]

Turkey policy

The ARF has repeatedly expressed misgivings about Armenia-Turkey talks initiated by Armenia's President Serge Sargsian. It organized street demonstrations to protest the visit of Turkey's President Abdullah Gül to Armenia on September 6, 2008.

As the talks continued, Armenian observers, including the ARF, expressed concern that Turkey was sticking to its preconditions for the normalization of relations. These preconditions have included Armenian concessions in Nagorno-Karabakh and the removal of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide from Armenia's foreign-policy agenda.

Mr. Sargsian on April 20 told the Wall Street Journal that his government and "the Turkish side in the negotiations supported the idea that we are negotiating without any preconditions." But, he added, "I think already now the motivation of Turkey has decreased, because . . . Prime Minister Erdogan is now offering preconditions." Indeed, on April 19 Mr. Erdogan had announced, "If the Armenian occupation of Azeri territory continues, Turkey will not open its border gate."

Nonetheless, two days later, Armenia's Foreign Ministry and its Turkish counterpart issued a joint declaration claiming the "two parties have achieved tangible progress and mutual understanding" in the process of normalizing their bilateral relations.

The statement, coming on the eve of April 24, the day Armenians worldwide commemorate the Armenian Genocide, was widely seen as intended to serve a single purpose: to allow President Barack Obama to cite progress in Armenia-Turkey dialogue as a reason to hold off on recognizing the Armenian Genocide. During his election campaign, Mr. Obama had pledged to recognize the Genocide as president.

"We find unacceptable and condemn the issuing of a joint declaration of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and Turkey on the eve of April 24," the ARF declaration read. It emphasized that the joint statement came at a time when "the leaders of Turkey are making anti-Armenian announcements and restating preconditions for the normalization of relations."

Armenians have succeeded over the years in "internationalizing" the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Mr. Rustamian said, referring to the recognition of the race-extermination campaign of 1915-17 as genocide by the European Parliament and numerous governments and parliaments. The Turkish government seeks to make the Armenian Genocide a bilateral issue between itself and the Armenian government and that is unacceptable, he added.

Whereas the joint statement of the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministries did not refer to the Genocide, its timing, according to Mr. Rustamian, was a major blow to Armenian interests.

Asked about the timing, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian on Monday told Armenpress that he hoped Turkey's leaders would one day join Armenia's leaders in laying flowers at the Armenian Genocide memorial monument in Tzitzernakaberd, and he speculated that they might do so in the month of April. "There can be, I think, a symbolism in that. And in making that statement on the 22nd too, perhaps, there is that symbolism," the foreign minister said.

Healing the political landscape

The ARF was in opposition during the presidency of Levon Ter-Petrossian (1991-97), who banned the party and arrested several of its leaders. As soon as Robert Kocharian took over as Armenia's second president, the party's activities resumed and its leaders were released from prison.

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