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POLLS SHOW PRO-WESTERN SHIFT IN ARMENIAN PUBLIC OPINION

Emil Danielyan 1/11/05

Armenians, traditionally oriented toward Russia, are increasingly losing faith in the benefits of a special relationship with Moscow and are becoming more pro-Western in their outlook, according to recent opinion polls.

Analysts in Yerevan say the pro-American shift in public perceptions over the past year is connected with a host of factors, not the least of them being the resounding success of Western-backed popular revolts in Georgia and Ukraine. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Popular views have also been greatly affected by the discourse of large sections of the country’s post-Soviet intellectual and political elites that regard the United States and the European Union as the ultimate guarantors of their country’s independence and prosperity.

The change is particularly visible among Armenia’s opposition political activists, who are buoyed by the success of opposition movements in Georgia and Ukraine, while continuing to seethe over Russia’s ongoing support for President Robert Kocharian’s administration. Some of them are now openly calling for an end to Armenia’s military alliance with Russia and its accession to NATO and the EU.

“In the past, no political forces would openly call for Armenia’s membership in NATO, safe in the knowledge that they would not only fail to get public support but also face harsh criticism. The situation is markedly different now,” says Stepan Safarian, an analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), a private think-tank.

“It is the opposition that enjoys the greatest popular support in Armenia. So naturally, its mood is being passed on to the general public,” he adds.

This assertion seems to have been born out by a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the ACNIS in December. Nearly two thirds of 2,000 respondents said they want their country to eventually join the EU and only 12 percent were against. A similar survey conducted by the Vox Populi polling organization in October found that 72 percent of Yerevan residents preferred the expanding union to the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.

Support for Armenia’s entry into the EU was practically unanimous among 100 political and public policy experts separately questioned by ACNIS. They were also overwhelmingly in favor of NATO membership.

The figures are remarkable for a small Christian nation that has for centuries viewed Russia as its main protector against hostile Muslim neighbors, notably Turkey and Azerbaijan. This sense of insecurity has been key to Armenia’s heavy reliance on Moscow for defense and security since the Soviet collapse. The conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh only reinforced it. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

“I think that over the past two or three years our society has become much more realistic and is beginning to understand the external challenges facing our state,” said Suren Sureniants, a senior member of Armenia’s most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutiun (Republic).

Hanrapetutiun is currently in talks with two other opposition groups over the formation of a new alliance that would not only strive to force Kocharian from power, but also offer Armenians a pro-Western alternative to policies pursued by incumbent authorities. Failure to come up with such “ideological alternative,” in Sureniants’s words, was the main reason for the opposition’s inability to topple Kocharian with a campaign of street protests last spring. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Unlike its counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine, the Armenian opposition found little support from Western governments, which appeared to be wary of the Armenian opposition’s vague agenda and past Russian connections. The oppositionists appear to have studied the lessons of the “Orange Revolution” in Kyiv, and are now changing tack. One of the most popular of them, Artashes Geghamian, was calling for Armenia’s accession the Russia-Belarus economic union as recently as two years ago. Geghamian now is an opponent of the idea. His National Unity Party voted for the dispatch of Armenian non-combat troops to Iraq during parliamentary debates in late December.

The opposition leaders’ “vehement desire to demonstrate their pro-Western stance” was denounced by a leading pro-Kocharian daily, Hayots Ashkhar. The paper voiced confidence that the pending Armenian troop deployment in Iraq should boost Kocharian’s pro-American credentials in Washington.

US President George W. Bush recently signed a proclamation authorizing the immediate implementation of “normal trade relations” with Armenia. The presidential action is the reflection of a steady improvement in US-Armenian ties in recent months. The proclamation, signed January 7, said that normal trade ties were made possible by the fact that Armenia had “made considerable progress in enacting market reforms” and had “demonstrated a strong desire to build a friendly and cooperative relationship with the United States.”

Other Kocharian loyalists are less sanguine. Vahan Hovannisian, a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a traditionally pro-Russian party represented in government, warned of a potential “dangerous” export of Western-backed revolutions to Armenia. “I don’t think that Armenian voters are today prepared to trust extreme anti-Russian forces,” Hovannisian said at a recent news conference. “Having said that, it is evident that anti-Russian sentiment in Armenian society is growing and there are objective reasons for that.”

According to Safarian, the analyst, Russia’s hasty endorsement of a rigged presidential ballot in Ukraine and its ensuing humiliation is one of those reasons. “There is a growing number of events testifying to Russia’s weakness, and the Armenian public does not fail to notice them,” he says.

Safarian believes that Moscow’s unequivocal acceptance of Kocharian’s disputed reelection nearly two years ago, its hard bargain on Armenia’s debts and the closure last fall of Russia’s borders with Georgia also alienated many Armenians. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Indeed, the two-month transport blockade, ostensibly aimed at preventing cross-border attacks by Chechen militants, hit landlocked Armenia hard by cutting off one of its main supply lines. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Russians faced an unprecedented barrage of criticism from Armenian politicians and media at the time.

“The Russian factor is now one of the key challenges that threaten the sovereignty, security and democratization of our country,” Sureniants charged. He claimed that a key element in the Kremlin’s strategy of maintaining Russian foothold in the South Caucasus and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union is to prop up illegitimate regimes and thwart the resolution of ethnic disputes.

The changing popular mood means that such views are not considered extreme and marginal in Armenia anymore.

Editor’s Note: Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.

Posted January 11, 2005 © Eurasianet

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