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New platform created for Armenia’s extra-parliamentary opposition

21 November 2019
Photo: still from video.

The former head of Armenia’s advisory Public Council, Vazgen Manukyan, has announced the creation of the Vernatun Club, a new political organisation, in a meeting on 15 November attended mostly by opposition figures linked to the former ruling Republican Party.

Manukyan, who served as the Prime Minister of Armenia between 1990 and 1991, said that the group would initially launch with representatives of different political parties from the pre-Velvet Revolution government, but would be open to members of every political persuasion.

‘Both the ruling regime and the opposition should have been here today,’ Manukyan said.

Representatives of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and other allies of former President Robert Kocharyan were present at the event. 

The Vernatun Club says it will focus on three main issues: A deadlocked Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, entrenched division in society, and attacks against the judiciary. Details on how the group will function in practice were scarce. It is billed as a platform for debate and discussion of policies important to the country.

Manukyan also announced that he would be returning to active politics early next year. He plans to revive his political party, the National Democratic Union Party, which did not participate in the 2018 elections and is not currently represented in Parliament.

Top floor

The Vernatun Club’s name refers to a literary society established by Armenian writer Hovhannes Tumanyan in 1899, which met on the top floor (vernatun) of Tumanyan’s Tbilisi home.

At the organisation’s inaugural meeting, members of the former ruling government, toppled in last year’s Velvet Revolution, lined up to criticise Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Speakers at the event included Viktor Soghomonyan, former President Robert Kocharyan’s chief of staff, and a member of the RPA ruling council, Artak Zakaryan. 

Neither of the two opposition parties in Parliament, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia, took part in the event. 

Dzovinar Vardanyan, an MP from the ruling of My Step coalition, commented on the  launch of the Vernatun Club, telling reporters that the opposition would remain at liberty to organise as it wishes. 

‘They are free to express their opinions – even those that state that Nikol Pashinyan has created an autocracy in the country’, she said.  

Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan was even more sanguine about the new organisation.  ‘I have a positive opinion [of the Vernatun Club]’, he told reporters. ‘I think they will bring a new freshness to our domestic politics.’ 

Growing criticism

Vazgen Manukyan said that the creation of the Vernatun Club is a reaction to the current ruling party’s unresponsiveness. 

‘We weren’t able to work with Pashinyan. If he had come and discussed these issues with the Public Council we would have had tough discussions. However, he didn’t come and we never had those discussions.’

Manukyan resigned as head of the Public Council, an advisory body to the government, days before the first Vernatun meeting. Manukyan has headed the 45 member council since 2009.

Public Council member, and former MP, Styopa Safaryan told Azatutyun that Manukyan’s resignation was inevitable — the role of the Council was as an advisory body, but under Manukyan it had started to ‘act against the government’.

Members of the former ruling regime have recently increased their attacks on the current government, focusing on perceived threats to ‘national values’, as well as the deadlocked Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

Since 7 November, the youth wing of the ARF has been picketing the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport in protest of proposals to the study of the Armenian language and Armenian history at university no longer compulsory.

The Republican Party has organised pickets of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, demanding the resignation of Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan for perceived failures in managing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

There have also been protests against state funding of a live street art performance, accused of being ‘anti-Armenian’, and of a film about transgender weightlifting champion Mel Daluzyan.

Both the RPA and ARF have argued that there is no effective opposition within Armenia’s legislature that can effectively hold the government to account, as opposition  parties hold only a third of seats. 

In an interview with Tert.am, Narek Samsonyan, president of the Civil Consciousness NGO, called the absence of an effective opposition to the Pashinyan government a ‘tragedy’. 

‘In a country with a parliamentary system, the lack of an opposition within the parliament can lead to dangerous crisis.’

‘When opposition channels can’t reach the parliament, they will blow up outside of it,’ Samsonyan warned.

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