2410) Armenia’s Presidential Election and its Ramifications for Relations with Turkey by PoliGazette

Armenia’s presidential election has finally passed after simmering for much of the month of March. For a synopsis of the events before and after the election, please refer to this article in the Diplomatic Courier: . .

Armenia Ends State of Emergency
Doubts remain about the future of democracy in the country, By Michael Kofman

26 March 2008: Last Friday saw the end of a state of emergency in Armenia with the army withdrawing from the capital Yerevan, leaving doubts about the future of democracy in the country and the likelihood of continued political stability. What began a month ago with the opposition parties’ rejection of the February 19th presidential elections transformed into mass street protests, escalating into clashes with the police and the declaration of a state of emergency by outgoing President Robert Kocharan.

Since order was first imposed on March 1st, the Armenian government has arrested more than 100 opposition activists and leaders, including several members of parliament and a former foreign minister, who are currently still being held. The opposition candidate, Mr. Ter-Petrosian, has himself been placed under house arrest. Two important stories have emerged from this crisis, one dealing with the election itself and another concerning a rapid deterioration of stability brought on by a political dispute.

The February election resulted in a 53% winning majority for the incumbent party candidate, Mr. Sarkisian, versus 21.5% for Mr. Ter-Petrosian of the opposition. Stunned by the outcome, opposition leaders declared the election a sham, citing numerous irregularities, and called for a new poll to be held, which was rejected by the government. The results were also rejected by Arthur Baghdasaryan, the former speaker and leader of the Ornats Yerkir party, who placed third. Members of the opposition have pointed to reports of vote buying, multiple voting and ballot box stuffing, suggesting it was rigged by president Kocharan in favor of his party’s candidate. It’s been reported that a combination of biased media, vote rigging, and public support from the president are the factors contributing to Mr. Sarkisian’s victory.

The government claims these charges are false, and is supported by the report of the OSCE observers at the election, who stated that the “presidential election in Armenia was conducted mostly in line with the country’s international commitments, although further improvements are necessary to address remaining challenges.” It also noted substantial progress in the handling of the process compared to previous votes. Since the initial protests, the constitutional court has ruled on the opposition’s formal appeal, confirming the existence of voting irregularities but stating that these are insufficient to invalidate the entire election, denying a request for a re-vote.

Not uncommon in the Caucasus, the context of this election is far from simple, in part due to the background of the candidates. Armenia has endured long standing economic and political problems, including endemic corruption and a lack of public trust in the government. Public discontent with the economy stems from unemployment and a rising currency value that has not made staple goods more affordable due to the continued presence of import monopolies. Disillusion has grown with the government because of its failure to address these issues and the perception that parliament members are more focused on personal gain rather than the public interest. The perpetuation of a frozen conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has prevented improvement in relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, looms over the country’s domestic problems and remains unresolved by previous administrations.

This situation has exacerbated bitterness on the opposition side as many were expecting a change in political leadership, voting against current problems that have been associated with president Kocharan’s administration and arguing for reforms in the electoral process. Mr. Sarkisian is not viewed with much higher regard. Unfortunately, Levon Ter-Petrosian is no reformer himself and is not a newcomer to the political machine in Yerevan. He served as the country’s first elected president demonstrating little success in addressing the same domestic issues while in office. This explains why analysts say his calls for reforms to the electoral process—after claiming the recent election a fraud—ring of hypocrisy. Mr. Ter-Petrosian is widely considered to have rigged the 1996 election, due to voting irregularities that took place at the time, and is remembered for ordering tanks onto the streets of Yerevan to quell subsequent protests. In this context, February appears to be a case of history repeating itself. Thus far, the situation in Armenia has yielded no clear heroes for the democratic process on either side of the political divide, nor validity to either claim.

The circumstances of the breakdown in public order that took place on March 1st have themselves been a subject of dispute. After banning public demonstrations, the government ordered police units to break up the sit in protest taking place in the capital’s central square. Opposition activists regrouped, barricading themselves in other sections of the city, leading to violent clashes that resulted in eight deaths and the institution of a state of emergency. The authorities claim that protesters were armed and that a spree of arrests was necessary because of a plot to carry out a coup by force against the government. Mr. Ter-Petrosian alleges that the weapons were planted by state security services to justify forcibly removing the protesters and subsequent detentions of opposition members. What is clear is that the government lost control of the situation in Yerevan, resorting to restrictions on the media and the use of the army to deal with protesters. A recently passed law banning demonstrations if they are perceived to threaten public order represents a return to a well remembered undemocratic past.

Current prospects for political reconciliation remain low and Mr. Sarkisian has undertaken a policy of co-optation having convinced the Ornats Yerkir party and its leader Arthur Baghdasaryan to join his government. With this recent revelation it appears that the opposition and Mr. Ter-Petrosian may have to accept their defeat in the elections. However, the events of the past month have reflected poorly on the president-elect, despite his effort to keep a low profile throughout the state of emergency. Robert Kocharian’s methods in dealing with the opposition will be perceived as being for Mr. Sarkisian’s benefit, and the outgoing president may have considerably damaged his own, already waning, reputation in public. This will make a possible bid for Prime Minister, in the style of Putin, a difficult proposition in the future.

Still dealing with the fallout from elections in Kenya, international pressure has come down for a restoration of political stability in Armenia, with both Russia and the U.S. issuing statements to this effect. A peaceful protest recently took place in the capital, which the police approached without attempting to disperse the demonstrators, suggesting that the government no longer perceives a threat from the opposition. The upcoming presidential inauguration on April 9th will test this newly established quiet, representing the next likely flashpoint of political tension, and by all indications cementing Mr. Sarkisian’s victory in the elections.

Although his government has not yet announced a political agenda, in a recent joint column with Mr. Baghdasaryan in the Washington Post he stated that first on the list of issues is “the long standing conflict over who should control the Nagorno-Karabakh region between our country and Azerbaijan” with the second being normalization of relations with Turkey, along with recognizing the need to tackle corruption. For an administration conceived in a state of emergency, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Sarkisian will be able to tackle Armenia’s three longest running problems—assuming of course that the current stability survives his inauguration.
[DIPLOMATIC COURIER], Copyright 2008 The Diplomatic Courier

or read the following article from
Economist Feb 21st :

"ELECTIONS in former Soviet republics rarely yield surprises. The incumbent wins; the opposition cries foul; it takes to the streets. The presidential vote in Armenia on February 19th ran true to form. Serzh Sarkisian, the prime minister, won 53% of the vote, enough to avert a runoff with his main rival, Levon Ter-Petrossian, with 21%. Mr Ter-Petrossian, a former president, said Mr Sarkisian had stolen the vote even before ballots were counted. Independent observers talked of ballot stuffing and intimidation."

It will probably be some time before elections in the Caucasus shed their flair for the dramatic. Even neighboring Turkey, a “pillar of political stability” for over half a decade, is giving the region a run for its money. The possibility of dismantling a ruling party due to alleged anti-secular transgressions would make any intrigue from the Caucasus look like a cheap B-movie.

Whether fraudulent elections or economic concerns, Armenian political debate rarely ventures far from a number of issues related to the country’s intimidating western neighbor. Optimists could argue that the newest selection of political personalities in Armenia may indeed prove to be the necessary ingredients for improving relations between Armenia and Turkey. Other than the long-standing quarrel surrounding the Armenian Genocide, one of the most important issues defining poor relations between the two countries is the contemporary dispute concerning Nagorno-Karabakh.

The current conflict that defines this small region dangling between Armenia and Azerbaijan has its origins in the early days of the Soviet Union, and includes an intriguing historical connection to Turkey. Before the Bolsheviks swept through the Caucasus in the early 1920s, the Nagorno-Karabakh region had been traditionally inhabited by both ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples. It had therefore been a point of contention during the short life-span of the newly minted states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the arrival of the communist era in the Caucasus, this conflict would be subsumed under the greater strategic affairs of the Soviet Union.

In 1923 Stalin, who was the Soviet commissar of nationalities at the time, decided to cede Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan as an “autonomous oblast”. According to a biography of Georgia’s most famous son by Robert Service, Stalin made this decision in order to curry favor with Ataturk’s Turkish Republic, which apparently maintained a keen interest in “Turkic affairs” even at that early time.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh experienced a string of bloody conflicts between Azerbaijani and Aremenian military and paramilitary forces. While Armenia received the bulk of its military support from Russia, the comparatively ill-equipped Azerbaijani forces are believed to have been supported by non-Azerbaijani Muslim mercenaries. With Armenia emerging as the nominal victor of the conflict, Turkey has chosen to isolate Armenia politically and economically, possibly with the ulterior motive of deflecting attention away from the Armenian Genocide or inflicting punishment as a result of public-relations discomfort it has caused the Turkish state.

While the fall of the Soviet Union involved a very unpleasant reality check for all those involved in the communist market experiment, the last decade has seen many of these countries make economic progress quite often due to their energy reserves. Over 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the circumstance of the Armenian economy remain dire when compared to any of its neighbors. The financial and travel blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan is largely responsible for its lack of economic progress. Like the economies of its neighbors, the Armenian market and political landscape is riddled with corruption. When considering the question of Armenian-Turkish relations in the near future, it appears that this issue of corruption, particularly as it relates Nagorno-Karabakh, is of great relevance.

The following Radio Free Europe article demonstrates the degree to which politicians hailing from Nagorno-Karabakh maintain a stranglehold on the Armenian political process.

Here is a selection of the article’s most poignant ideas:

"Aram Abramian, editor in chief of the Yerevan-based daily newspaper “Aravot” and who has roots in Nagorno-Karabakh, says Kocharian and Sarkisian brought in associates from the territory who took over state posts and dominated the business elite.

“There are 20, 30 families — oligarchs — people who, thanks to the opportunities that are provided to them by the authorities, became rich, and have wide possibilities of avoiding taxes and custom fees,” Abramian says, adding that well-connected moguls were able to gain “monopolies” over fuel, sugar, and other commodities.

Among those identified by analysts as part of the Karabakh clan are Kocharian’s son, Sedrak, who reportedly controls mobile-phone imports; Barsegh Beglarian, who dominates the gas-station market; Mika Bagdasarov, who controls oil imports and heads the national airline; and Karen Karapetian, head of the Armrusgazard gas company, a joint venture with Russia’s Gazprom."

If the ideas advanced by the VOA article are indeed true, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh issue and, as an extension, the future of Armenian-Turkish relations. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh legitimates the political class currently running Armenia. In particular, it distracts the electorate away from the single biggest issue affecting their lives on a daily basis - a sickly economy. As the VOA article suggests, what motivation does Armenia’s ruling Nagorno-Karabakh cabal have to resolve the conflict and further improve relations with Turkey in order to resuscitate the economy? A more free-market economic system, involving trade and investment with Turkey, would only undermine their current political and economic existence as it would empower potential opponents.

Turkey, for its part, should also be expected to engage the Nagorno-Karabakh with a more constructive attitude. This is especially the case in light of its role as the region’s most important power broker after Russia and its aspirations to join the European Union as a valuable diplomatic partner. Prior to its construction, Turkey offered to route the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through Armenia, allowing its neighbor to collect the lucrative transit fees, in exchange for recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan.

Such a swap would have merely fattened the wallets of the corrupt. More importantly, it would have done little to address the underlying issues stoking the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - disputes between two distinct ethno-religious groups wanting to living on the same plot of land. While a more constructive approach must be demonstrated on Turkey’s part, such an expectation may prove foolish. The rising levels of ethno-nationalistic sentiment that could very well mark the post-AKP era of Turkish politics render the possibility of reconciliation with Armenia increasingly unlikely.

Regardless of Turkey’s role, there is a much greater motivation for Armenia to resolve Nagorno-Karabakh compared to Turkey considering Armenia’s desperate need to reintegrate itself into the regional economy of Eurasia. Armenia cannot afford to be locked in its current economic ice age and slip further behind its neighbors in terms of economic development. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a clear sign of when the country’s democratic process will be capable of overcoming Armenia’s suffocating political-economic corruption.

Comments »
March 31, 2008

It sadly seems to be a case of people on both sides having vested interests in not solving the problem. I’m supposing that in Turkey ANY concession to the Armenians is spun as nothing short of admitting the Armenian genocide claim, and I also wouldn’t be surprised if many wealthy folks in Turkey were so partly because of the corruption in Armenia. On the Armenian side, a deeply corrupt elite is doing very well with the situation. On the one hand, they have a totally stifled free trade, so no competition to worry about. On the other hand, the sanctions create so much resentment on the Armenian populace (and understandably so) that Turkey and Azerbaijan can be used as scapegoats to blame for all the countries ills.

April 1, 2008

There is no chance for Armenia than to give the occupied territory back. The Azerbaijan will not give up the sanctions against Armenia without the full rollback. And as the days passes by the corruption of Armenian oligarchs, who live their lifes as they did in the Sowjet-Times, will embarres the democrazy of the normal population, which struggles in their everyday lifes. No one really gives a dime for their future.

April 1, 2008

You’re entitled to your opinion George, but you have a very one-sided take on the matter that (very surprisingly) this particular PoliGazette post does not hold.

April 1, 2008

Firt of all Russia supported both sides to keep the war going and the azeris became "ill-equipped" after getting demolished by us. Most of our weapons came from azeis. I’m not even going to into all the reasons why Artsakh is Armenian land and will never again be occupied by tatars we will make sure of it.

April 1, 2008

"… and will never again be occupied by tatars we will make sure of it."

… said the ethnic cleanser.

April 1, 2008

Contrary to the assertion of this post the Armenian economy has done remarkably well given its relative lack of natural resources and the blockade imposed on this tiny country by Turkey and Azerbaijan. The economy is considered as one of the most liberal in the ex-Soviet Union, Armenia having privatized most industries early on. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has Armenia ranked in 28th place with Turkey in 74th place and Azerbaijan in 107th. http://www.heritage.org/Index/countries.cfm

GDP has grown at a double digit rate for the last 10 years with the economy expanding by almost 14% in 2007, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/am.html and GDP per capita (on a PPP basis) was $5,700 in 2007 compared to Georgia at $4,200, oil-rich Azerbaijan at $9,000, and Turkey at $9,400.

The country has been dubbed the ‘Caucasian Tiger’. http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTABOUTUS/IDA/0,,contentMDK:21201851~pagePK:51236175~piPK:437394~theSitePK:73154,00.html

In terms of corruption there is certainly a problem although no worse than in most other ex-Soviet countries. In its 2007 Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International has the country in 99th place, Russia in 143rd, and Azerbaijan in 150th http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2007

The current unrest is actually a sign that the population now demands that Armenia follow the rule of law and away from rule by oligarchs.

April 1, 2008

Tartars or Mongols? Or my ass?..

I am surprised by the fact that the author manages to avoid any mention of the civilian casualties (massacres) inflicted upon Azeris, and the resulting refugee crisis, and yet can pontificate about pros and cons, rights and wrongs of Turkish sanctions on Armenia.

Apart from that, the logical integrity of the last four paragraphs or so beats me.

April 1, 2008

…whose ansectors throughout history have been systematically murdered (women, children and all) by the turkic mongols with no support or even a second glance by anyone in the world. Naxijevan (my ansectral land) is next to be liberated if they want to start a war. I would never stand for ethnic cleansing by the way. I love diversity but when an ultimatum is set, I stand with Armenians only because no one else will. Our ancestors welcomed foreigners into our lands and it was only the turks who took advantage of a peaceful Christian people and ruined our great existence. Where once stood a Pantheons of Gods, great Christian Monestaries and beautiful civilizations is a deserted landscape under turkic occupation (other than some kurds who often use our Monestaries as barns). Hally I suggest you gather more knowledge about Armenians and our history if you are interested about these issues.

April 1, 2008

nihat the turk doesn’t mention why some civilians were killed. Because like the rest of their coward brothers in the region they plant innocent civilians where weapons caches are kept so as to deter attacks on those areas. Armenians refused to allow them to use this tactic and attacked them. He also doesn’t mention the century long harassment and murder Armenians endured under their soviet rule in Artsakh. As for those few hundred turks killed after the Armenian Genocide, it was done by a group of Armenians who lost their family members in the Genocide and where enraged about the lack of help and recognition by the world thus sadly resulted to the same tactics of seek and destroy.

Armenia’s Presidential Election and its Ramifications for …
April 1, 2008

[…] Read the rest of this great post here […]

April 1, 2008

la turquia y azerbaijan son asesinos de pueblos.hay que condemnar a esos barbaros para siempre.

April 1, 2008

1. the conflict does not have its roots in the early soviet period, it has its roots to the turkic invasions of that region that began centuries earlier. The last major conflict over karabakh occured bw 1918-1921 but there was another one in 1905 and many more before it.

2. your timeline is skewed and missing very critical information
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh did not experience a string of bloody conflicts until major Azeri pogroms against Armenians in the Azeri port city of Sumgait (Feb 1988) and later in baku. This is telling when one actually presents all the facts. Because a reader understands what happened better when he/she knows that the people of that region have suffered pogroms at the hands of their turkish overloards in the past (1905, 1918). You also ignore that the Armenians have been the victims of massacres in Turkey bw 1894-96, wide scale pogroms in Cilicia in 1909 and a genocide in 1915 (which wiped 1.5 mil Armenians from turkey and their ancestral homeland). What does one expect when a nation with such a history is faced with renewed massacres?

3. your sources are themselves skewed and inaccurate. Your conclusion that karabakh armenians have taken over the country because a handful of politicians and oligarchs from karabakh are now in governing positions in Armenia is absurd. The previous administration of Levon Ter Petrosyan established a very large oligarchic structure that was composed of Armenians from Armenia—they are still there and in power.

Quite frankly the karabakh conflict has only one solution and that is its unification with Armenia. Any other reality will eventually signal the end of Armenian statehood and that is not acceptable to armenia. karabakh and nakhichevan are vital pieces in a larger geopolitical game that has been ongoing for a century. You touched upon it briefly yourself. Turkey tried in 1921 to connect nakhichevan, Zangezur (souther armenia connecting it with iran) and karabakh to create a turco-azeri corridor linking the two countries. such a scenario is still possible and therefore precludes any possibility that armenia will seek a karabakh solution that does not involve unification b/w the two territories.

Source: PoliGazette
March 31, 2008