On May 6, parliamentary elections will be held in the Caucasus nation of Armenia. To many outside observers, the political landscape is a flurry of acronyms, characterized by shifting alliances. The sheer proliferation of parties makes it a challenge to untangle the various interests at stake. What is clear, however, is that electoral fraud has beset past elections, and many view current President Serzh Sargsyan as synonymous with a host of practices which call into question the political elite’s alleged commitment to democracy.
At the helm of this nation of three million people is currently the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which officially holds 63 seats in the country’s 131-member parliament and also benefits from the support of around a dozen nominally independent deputies. Led by Serzh Sargsyan, who has been president since 2008, they are also the favourites to win May’s trip to the polls. Since the last election, the ruling coalition comprised of the President’s Republican Party, Gagik Zaroukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, Arthur Baghdassaryan’s Country of Laws Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) (Dashnag party), which later defected. The other main party, which used to be a coalition partner of the HHK, is the prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). This is run by Gagik Tsarukian, a businessman often regarded as a protégé of Robert Kocharian, the second president of Armenia, from 1998-2008. This party, which enjoys some popular appeal, has 26 seats in the outgoing parliament. Formerly the parties were coalition partners and had planned to run in the May elections as a single bloc. However, tensions emerged in February when BHK lawmakers blocked the passage of a major government bill in the parliament provoking major criticisms from the HHK. Subsequently the BH boycotted a parliamentary session.
In a further step to define their independent electoral aspirations, BHK has also incorporated former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who had been a major figure in the Kocharian regime, to its ranks late in February. Another prominent figure from the past and the opposition is Levon Ter-Petrosian, the first president of Armenia, who currently heads up Armenia’s opposition coalition. Ter-Petrosian has proved a vociferous foe of both his successors, Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sargsyan. An indefatigable opposition voice, he heads up the Armenian National Congress (HAK) which draws under its umbrella 22 parties and groups, among them the Armenian Republic party, the People’s Party of Armenia and the Heritage party. Much realignment is afoot however. Four of these, it was announced, will boycott the elections after they failed to reach an agreement with Ter-Petrosian on their representation on the HAK’s list of candidates for the proportional vote. The HAK has told the press that in principle it would be willing to cooperate with the BHK, since its fissure with the HHK emerged. “As things stand now, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), judging from their statements, is in favour of political competition,” said Arman Musinian, the HAK spokesman. “And if the Prosperous Armenia Party demonstrates in the coming months and on election day that it is really interested in free and fair elections, I think there will be large room for cooperation.” For this to be the case however, the HAK leader has emphasised that Tsarukian should “clearly dissociate himself” from his mentor, ex-president Robert Kocharian.
If Ter-Petrosian is keen to assert the need for distance between the BHK head and the former president, it is perhaps because Kocharian, who retired from politics in 2008, has been rather busy of late – prompting considerable speculation as to whether he does in fact intend to return to the fray. Since the end of January he had held a series of high-level meetings with foreign leaders, among them Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Tehran, and French ex-president Jacques Chirac in Paris. He has also met with Robert Bradtke, the American co-chair of the Minsk Group, which is overseeing the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition to this he has been highly critical of the Sargsyan administration. It is believed by some that the BHK party’s underlying agenda is, in fact, that of bringing Kocharian back. Others from within the party have been quick to dispel this rumor. Armenia analyst Edmond Y. Azadian has posed the question of whether or not there is the possibility of a Kocharian and Serzh Sargsyan swap, in the style of Putin and Medvedev in Russia. Whether the two men are colluding or not remains shrouded in mystery.
Whilst he faces a barrage of criticism from his former coalition partners and the pre-existing political opposition, Sargsyan does at least seem to enjoy a certain degree of approval from the EU and US. After March 6 talks with Sargsyan in Brussels, the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his sense of ‘reassurance’ that the elections ‘will be conducted in accordance with democratic international standards’. The matter of democratic standards is one of the key issues relating to the elections. Concerns about the level of transparency and fairness with which they will be held continue to abound. It has long been complained in Armenia that the political opposition are stifled by a variety of pernicious tactics. Both the 2003 and 2008 elections were marred by allegations of malpractice and resulted in violent street clashes in which a number of people died. There are, the opposition believes, inherent problems with the electoral system which prejudice it against pluralism. One such problem is single mandate constituencies where businessmen with links to the ruling party tend to run. They also tend to have the funds with which to buy up local support through various unseemly methods. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian claimed last September that no fewer that 76 parliamentarians are businessmen who “keep violating the constitution.” Last November, Raffi Hovannisian, the U.S.–born former foreign minister and head of the Heritage party, addressed an open letter to President Sargsyan listing 15 measures he recommended the government undertake to prove their commitment to free and fair elections, among them abolishing elections held in single-seat constituencies. This last measure was unusually supported by both the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Heritage party. President Sargsyan was however quick to take issue with Hovannisian’s ‘vicious’ missive on personal grounds, refusing to countenance any of the suggestions.
The single seat issue however is not the only rallying point of the opposition who believe that if the elections are held without fraud, it should be possible for them to achieve victory. The matter of Armenia’s official voting register, which his detractors claim have been manipulated by Sargsyan, is another example. Many critical voices have suggested that the authorities inflate the voting registers to create additional support for the HHK. Statistics bear out the accusations – an increase of 165,000 eligible voters was noted since 2007, when the population in this period has in fact declined. President Sargsyan has put the increase down to the inclusion of Armenians living abroad. His critics remain unconvinced. When elections are not being rigged, there are of course more traditional methods of stifling political pluralism, namely straightforward intimidation. In December of last year, the BHK complained of a ‘witch-hunt’ against it after a number of its politicians or those linked to the party were arrested. This month, independent candidate Meruzhan Mkhoyan was abducted from his home and assaulted by a group of unknown assailants, an attack which has been blamed upon his HHK opponent, Aleksan Petrosian. On April 16, opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC) candidate Nikol Pashinyan, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Armenian Times newspaper, was not allowed to enter a television news station to debate with ruling Republican MP Ruben Hayrapetyan.
Political persecutions of this manner do little to reassure the international community of the ruling regime’s good intentions. International voting monitors are already preparing their mission to the country. The OSCE opened its office in Yerevan on March 22 to begin observations. Not all of Armenia’s political community is ready to believe the OSCE will be disappointed in what it finds. Despite his stance on the ruling party, Levon Ter-Petrossian believes that the elections will be conducted in a reasonably democratic fashion. He told the press: “The world would no longer put up with the kind of abuses that were committed in Armenia in the past. The events in Arab countries…have taught the world a lesson, and I’m sure the world will be looking at our elections with totally different eyes.” The state’s politicians are conscious of the evolution of its democratic practices, particularly within the context of the Arab spring and the nascent protest movement in nearby Russia. The use of digital media, which was noted extensively in the toppling of regimes in North Africa, is a testament to this awakening. According to the international social media databank Socialbakers.com, in the last three months, Armenia has seen its number of registered Facebook users increase by nearly 18% (to 282,700). Whilst politicians are making use of these platforms to propagate their own views, Facebook inter alia has also been particularly instructive in revealing electoral fraud, as a forum for the collecting of evidence of malpractice. It is hoped that the transparency offered by the social media and their swift penetration into Armenian society will help usher in a new era of greater democratization.
The path towards greater democracy does also have tangible advantages for the country in terms of international trade. In February, the EU began to launch negotiations on a free trade area with Armenia in order to increase trade and investment with the Caucasus country. Since, according to the EU’s Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht the bloc is Armenia’s prime trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to 960 million euros, this carries considerable economic weight. Since July 2010, the EU has been negotiating a broader Association Agreement with Armenia by which the bloc can exert pressure on a country to make commitments to political, economic, trade, or human rights reform in exchange for trading privileges. Given that the economy is stifled by corruption, this could serve a dial purpose – that of encouraging transparency and encouraging commerce. Whilst Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has been particularly vociferous in attempting to uproot unfair business practices, many still complain that the economy is run by a small handful of politically-connected tycoons. The areas particularly affected by monopolization practices include fuel and basic foodstuffs. The chairman of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Armenia’s leading business association, told RFE/RL that unfair economic competition and abuse of power are omnipresent. A senior official from the IMF, which in December granted the country $56 million in fresh loans believes that Armenian officials should do “much more” to reform the country’s business environment and promote healthy economic growth. With a predicted growth rate of 4% this year however, there are some reasons for the nation to feel optimistic about its financial prospects.
Whilst the EU and the West may be enjoying relatively warm relations with Armenia (the US praised the state’s involvement in the NATO missions in Afghanistan) its relations with near neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan remain icy. The frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagnorno Karabakh continues to rumble on despite numerous efforts by the international community and the Minsk group, with periodic outbursts of physical or verbal hostilities. President Sargsyan has accused leaders in Azerbaijan of seeking to stymie progress on resolving the conflict. Armenia has refused to participate in the Baku-hosted Eurovision song contest in May on the basis of ‘anti-Armenian’ rhetoric emanating form the glitzy capital. Equally problematic are relations with Turkey, as a result of a historical trauma, the Turley-led genocide against Armenians nearly 100 years ago, which Ankara refuses to recognize as such. The fact that other nations, such as France have recently adopted punitive measures for Armenian genocide denial, means that it consistently returns to the political agenda. Turkey’s backing of Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which the Erdogan regime believes is illegally occupied by Armenia, is another sticking point.
The May 6 elections will place democratic processes in Armenia under the microscope. It can but be hoped that in the current regional context, where the status quo in any individual state is increasingly challenged by either nascent protest movement, or a social media savvy population, the polls will be held with great transparency than in previous years. Some have argued that the fact that all three candidates have previously been presidents undermines the notion of it being a truly open race. Nonetheless, for this nation in transition, any progress will be welcome.
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