2013 Elections: Armenia’s Geopolitical Future and Prospects for Democracy

2013 Elections: Armenia’s Geopolitical Future and Prospects for Democracy

By Armen Ayvazyan | April 15, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Source: Harvard International Review

2013 (Re)Election Results in Armenia

Since regaining independence in 1991, Armenia’s presidential elections have been marred by fraud, while the incumbent political authorities have consistently been able to reestablish themselves. Massive post-election protests took place after the presidential elections in 1996, 2003, and 2008. In 2013, the country found itself in a similar situation. With over 58 percent of the votes, the incumbent, President Serzh Sargsyan, was declared the winner, while Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the Heritage Party, received about 37 percent of the vote.

Unique to the 2013 elections was that they were likely manipulated before the formal start of the campaign, as all major opposition political parties ultimately sat out of the elections. Not only did the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), and the opposition bloc Armenian National Congress (ANC) refuse to nominate or support any candidate, but they also relinquished their organizational capabilities for monitoring the electoral process. Moreover, these parties did not call for elections boycott per se, even though they expressed distrust in the existing democratic mechanisms for regime change. Since 1991, behind-the-scenes bargaining between the government and the oppositional political forces has given rise to a loss of public trust in Armenia’s political institutions.

During President Sargsyan’s first term in office, he did not encourage the independence of the judiciary or the legislature, both of which continue to act as mere appendages of the executive. He reinvented the Soviet methods of direct party control over higher educational institutions and secondary schools: the President, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of the Parliament (all members of the ruling Republican Party) have been “elected” heads of the governing councils of major state universities. The pseudo student councils are also run by the Republican youth, and approximately 90 percent of the secondary school principals are Republicans.

Sargsyan also pointedly blurred the distinction between the organs of state and the current political administration. He consolidated monopolistic control and actual censorship over Armenian main broadcast media, including the state-funded public television H1 and other popular Armenian TV channels (for instance, massive protest demonstrations in Yerevan on the President’s inauguration day, April 9, which resulted in tense standoff and clashes with police, never received live broadcast on any channel, while the main news program on H1 gave them only two minutes out of 46). Therefore, the deactivation of the major political parties just prior to the presidential elections threatened to severely damage the ostensibly democratic political system of the Republic.

However, this political desolation had a boomerang effect against the incumbent authorities, producing a new protest movement with Raffi Hovannissian, until then a non-heavyweight politician, as its leader. His emphasis on poverty, emigration, and other long-standing social grievances – coupled with the fact that he was a candidate considered to be without a history of corruption – was sufficient to mobilize the existing anti-government sentiment. Irrespective of where further developments could take Armenia, Hovannissian’s success already proved to be an important democratic achievement that shook the foundations of Sargsyan’s nascent authoritarianism. This societal awakening has prompted mass defiance against the government’s pressure to vote for the incumbent as well as post-election protests throughout provinces in Armenia.

Large segments of the Armenian population have rejected the conduct of both the poll and vote counting as fraudulent, also dismissing the ratification of the elections in the initial reports of international monitoring missions. Citizen activist Lena Nazaryan and her supporters disrupted a press conference conducted by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), branding them as “political tourists” who were “legitimizing the fraudulent election.” Arthur Sakunts, a leading Western-backed activist and recipient of the Freedom Defender Award, challenged US President Barack Obama’s congratulations for Sargsyan’s reelection. He claimed that Obama “has clearly got himself among those restricting freedom and encouraging the restriction of freedom” and even questioned the value of the award received from the US government. This wide spread disappointment in Western attitude toward democracy in Armenia is echoed by various Armenian-American civic groups and activists who have closely followed the elections and held a series of protest gatherings.

On the whole, Armenia emerged from the 2013 Armenian elections with the masses feeling more alienated and disenfranchised. This leaves the President with less internal legitimacy and thus exposed to more external pressures than ever. The hasty recognitions of the election results by Russia, the United States, NATO, France, Iran, Turkey, and other international actors signaled that the incumbent President is the preferred candidate for the world and regional centers of power. These unfortunate events unfold as Armenia finds itself in an all-encompassing crisis.

A Country in Crisis

Between 2009 and 2011, some 250,000 Armenians became poor and currently one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. According to the Armenian government, the average monthly real consumption of Armenia’s population decreased by 6.1 percent in 2011 as compared to 2008. The economy’s slow recovery from a contraction of over 14 percent in 2009 (mainly due to the global economic crisis) will be severely hampered by the continuing outflow of both human and monetary capital, as well as by the sharp surge in current and future external debt servicing: about US$418 million in 2013, over 1.5 times more than in 2012. Armenia’s balance of payments is more and more reliant on foreign credits. It is expected that the government will acquire new international loans this year, most of which will be unproductively spent on managing foreign debt, thus squandering precious funds. In addition, the economic and transport blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan continues to suffocate the Armenian economy. The net result is Armenia’s ever growing economic and political dependence on foreign powers.

On the geostrategic level, the attainment of reliable security guarantees and, above all, defensible borders are central issues for Armenia. The Ottoman Turkish purpose in perpetrating the Genocide of 1915-1923 was not so much to physically exterminate the Armenians, as it was to destroyArmenia as a potentially autonomous or independent nation. From 1918 to 1920, this potential evolved into a reality, as Armenia was invaded, partitioned, and annexed by the then allied Kemalist Turkey and Bolshevik Russia. Since 1991, neither Turkey nor Azerbaijan reconciled itself to the emergence of Armenian statehood even on the much smaller territory of 42,000 square kilometers, where it is realized as the Republic of Armenia (RoA) and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The Armenian-Azerbaijani war over the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991-1994 was an organic extension of Armenian-Turkish conflict of the beginning of the 20th century.

Therefore, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is not only about the realization of the self-determination rights of its population, but about the long-term security and minimally sufficient strategic depth for Armenia. Recently, however, Azerbaijan’s newly found military conceit, boosted by huge oil revenues and large acquisition of offensive armaments as well as unequivocal Turkish backing, have practically rendered the international negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict redundant. Now the threat of a resumption of war with Azerbaijan seems more real than ever.

In this unenviably difficult situation, it will be of utmost importance for Armenia to somehow adjust to the opposing geopolitical agendas of the dominant powers in the region – the Russian Federation and the US-NATO-EU bloc.

Russia’s Neo-Byzantine Agenda: Weakening an Ally into Incorporation

Allied to Russia by the bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Aid (1997) and as a member of both the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Armenia is the fulcrum for Russian efforts to rebuild its clout in the post-Soviet Transcaucasia, recently rechristened the South Caucasus (incidentally, both designations are politically and geographically inaccurate, inasmuch as Armenia and much of modern Georgia and Azerbaijan are not part of the Caucasus). However, while Washington has gone out of its way to strengthen its own ally in the region with Sahakashvili’s Georgia, Russian policies toward Armenia have taken a different turn.

Russia did not strive to improve Armenia’s economy by direct investment into its industrial sectors or infrastructure which were shattered by the effects of the 1988 earthquake, the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the economic blockade of Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan. In a seemingly paradoxical move, between 2007 and December 2012, its “Compatriots” state program lured some 26,000 Armenians to apply to migrate into sparsely inhabited regions of Russia with contracts guaranteeing work and a naturalization process of six months rather than five years. The Armenian government, cornered by domestic critics and a severe demographic crisis – the post-Soviet exodus of about a third of its population and the resultant low birthrate – belatedly expressed its disapproval to this Russian project. Due to Armenia’s economic crisis, large numbers are emigrating to Russia and other countries without state-organized promotion.

This Russian position is manifestly unreasonable. The question is whether this attitude toward Armenia represents an erratic and inconsistent policy on the part of post-Soviet governments (who have often been blamed by the Russian analysts for ignoring their own geopolitical interests) or whether it is a calculated program to incorporate Armenia into the newly-created trade and economic organizations under the Russian umbrella, namely the Eurasian Union and Customs Union. Two indicators in particular strongly suggest that the latter assumption is nearer the mark.

First, Moscow vigorously pursues the Russian-language education in Armenia at the expense of the Armenian language. In 2010, in clear violation of the constitutional status of Armenian as the country’s sole official language, the Law on Language (1993) was loosened to allow foreign language instruction in public schools and universities. Because of the existing teaching cadres and traditions, this “amendment” promoted mostly Russian-language instruction. At the time it was widely believed that this legal allowance was made to meet Russian demands.

Moscow also sold advanced weaponry to Armenia’s rival, Azerbaijan, including two surface-to-air missile systems of S-300 PMU2 Favorite type, which is a more advanced version of the S-300 PS that was delivered to Armenia. This move, besides generating a crisis of confidence in Armenia about the credibility of Russian security commitments, speaks volumes about Moscow’s stance vis-à-vis its traditional Armenian ally. The Kremlin strategists suspect that Armenia’s oligarchic elite, concerned with its own financial fortune, could easily switch camps and embrace the West’s patronage. Draining Armenia’s human resources to the point where the nation would not be capable of resisting Azerbaijani aggression alone and could survive only as a de facto Russian province seems to be the most realistic, if seemingly conspiratorial, explanation for Russia’s strategy regarding Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh then could, again, become a bargaining chip between Moscow and Baku. Meanwhile, the Armenian migrants in Russia could be used as an additional means by which to attach Armenia to its former imperial master. Evidently, Moscow does not believe that under current geopolitical conditions it would be far more beneficial for Russia to help Armenia become a strong ally than for it to remain a weak client state.

It is of considerable interest to observe that these Russian strategies strikingly remind one of the millennium-old Byzantine policies toward Armenia. Precisely a thousand years ago, the Byzantine Empire, first undermined Armenia politically, militarily, and demographically, both compelling and attracting hundreds of thousands of Armenians, especially their military elite, to migrate to its remote western regions. Subsequently, a debilitated Armenia was devoured by the Empire. However, as a consequence, the Byzantines shouldered the burden of defending Armenia’s southern and eastern frontiers, hitherto effectively held by the established Armenian military, which was by now significantly demoralized and partly removed from the operational zone. Yet, this soft destruction of an ally as a successful buffer state proved to be a strategic mistake of disastrous proportions: soon after, the Empire was forced to surrender Armenia to the Seljuk Turks, forever forsaking its former political and military clout in the region.

One can presume that the Russians think big: they are planning an effective incorporation of Armenia, as a step to widen their sphere of influence in the whole region. But their miscalculation could bring a depleted and drained Armenia to a complete demographic and political collapse, precipitating a huge strategic loss for Russia, Georgia, and Europe(and by extension the West), all of which would lose a steadfast civilizational ally with a capable military force of its own and face grave new challenges in their periphery.

The West’s Neo-Ottoman Agenda: Pushing Turkey’s Victim into Capitulation

In a far cry from its declared commitment to promote democratic principles and the rule of law, the US-NATO-EU alliance is first and foremost aiming to achieve – through strategic submission of Armenia’s foreign policy to its geopolitical agenda in the ring of former southern Soviet republics – the following specific objectives: the containment of Russia, the political isolation of Iran, and an unrestricted access through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and then across the Caspian Sea for the transport of hydrocarbon reserves of Central Asia. This agenda, however, is subtly attuned to the projections of a hegemonic-minded Turkey – an increasingly unpredictable NATO ally. Turkey’s visions of gaining regional preeminence, combined with its firm denial of the Ottoman-perpetrated Genocide, are a direct threat to Armenia.

The West’s unwillingness to confront the fundamentally destructive strategic objectives of the Turkish-Azerbaijani bloc regarding Armenia has been exemplified by inaction in a number of remarkable cases. The reluctance to acknowledge the rights of the Armenian nation to restitution, compensation, and rehabilitation has sent wrong signals to both Turkey and Azerbaijan, encouraging their unending hostility to Armenia and undermining chances for a sustainable reconciliation. The West’s acquiescence to Turkey’s twenty year-old economic blockade of Armenia, a development contrary to international law, has cost Armenia billions of dollars. Azerbaijan’s publicly threatening military aggression is notably promoted by the West’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of self-proclaimed independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, even though the NKR possesses all historical, political, demographic, legal, and moral credentials for seceding from Azerbaijan. This degrading scenario stemming from the West has emboldened Azerbaijan’s well-documented destruction of thousands of irreplaceable medieval monuments of Armenian and European cultural heritage in the province of Nakhijevan during the 2000s and the racially motivated murder of an Armenian officer at the NATO-organized courses in Budapest in 2004 by an Azerbaijani colleague, as well as his subsequent premature release by a NATO-member Hungary to Azerbaijan, where the murderer was immediately pardoned, promoted in military rank, and glorified by Ilham Aliyev’s regime in 2012.

The convergence of irrational sets of strategic interests of the West and Turkey was best demonstrated by the imposition of the now ill-fated Turkish-Armenian “reconciliation process” and the highly unpopular and still unratified, Protocols between Turkey and Armenia, shortly after President Sargsyan came to power in 2008. The Protocols recognized the borders between Armenia and Turkey “without any preconditions,” which simply meant a dishonest and dangerous endorsing of the consequences of the Genocide on Armenia permanently. In full accordance with Turkey’s long-standing position, the two governments have agreed to sidestep all “historical issues” (including Genocide) by appointing a “historical commission” to discuss them. No Turkish acknowledgment of the Genocide preceded the possible diplomatic opening between the two countries. This was like allowing an unrepentant Nazi Germany to call for a “historical commission” to debate the Holocaust – an outrageous prospect that President Sargsyan actually agreed upon to possibly alleviate his low legitimacy, but simultaneously undermining the country externally.

The West consistently refuses to provide effective security guarantees to Armenia. What is offered to Armenia is only advancement in political and economic relations with the European Union through the so-called Eastern Partnership (EaP), which is seen as a provisional stage to the final accession to the EU. The West’s enduring unresponsiveness to the dire security needs of beleagueredArmenia, not to mention the highly insufficient economic assistance, pushes it toward integration with Russia.

Russian-Western Geopolitical Game: A Lose-Lose Situation

The former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed “to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent” Russian efforts to create a Customs Union and Eurasian Union, describing them as “a move to re-Sovietize the region.” At the same time, Russia has voiced opposition to the Eastern Partnership, particularly Armenia’s participation. Clearly, the West and Russia have specific and largely opposing expectations from Armenia, thus severely limiting President Sargsyan’s maneuvering capacity.

In a rapidly changing world, this rivalry between the West and Russia could render them both as losers: without a strong and viable Armenia, an Islamic Turkey can emerge as the sole and unruly winner of this short-sighted brinkmanship. Ominously, such a prospect evokes another historical parallel, when in the seventh century the Arab Islamic armies brought catastrophe upon both the Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Persia, after these two regional super-powers had worn each other down in the never-ending military conflicts which were fought, incidentally, in and around Armenia.

This tense regional atmosphere between Russia and the West as well as the intransigence of Azerbaijan are unfavorable factors for reaching any sustainable agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, mediated jointly by Russia, America, and France as Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Undoubtedly, the low internal legitimacy of President Sargsyan is an additional factor that may affect crucial issues on the negotiating table. Nagorno-Karabakh remains the most sensitive issue of Armenian politics.

The geopolitical frictions in the region are generally not conducive to the democratic process in Armenia, since neither of the mentioned foreign powers intends to see a genuinely democratic regime which could act independently, on the basis of national interests, rather than according to their zero-sum regional agendas. Nevertheless, the majority of Armenians want change, while Sargsyan, through his two-decade-long career of heading the highest state posts (as chief of defense and national security establishments, Prime Minister, and a one-term president) has amply demonstrated that he is inflicted with substantial limitations in providing much needed socio-economic and political reforms. Therefore, social change can hardly ensue during Sargsyan’s presidency. Moreover, no great power appears to be interested in such progress. On the other hand, thanks to the newly emerged Armenian protest movement, Sargsyan’s authoritarian leanings may be checked effectively.

DR. ARMEN AYVAZYAN (Aivazian) is the founding director of the ARARAT Center for Strategic Research. From 1992 to 1994, he worked as Assistant to the President of Armenia, Adviser to the Foreign Minister of Armenia, and Acting Head of the Armenian Delegation to the Conference (now Organization) on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna, Austria.

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