Armenia After Election Year
On May 5th 2013 municipal elections were held in Yerevan. These were the last in a series of important elections in Armenia, which started with parliamentary elections in May 2012.
On February 18th the presidential election was held, in which the current president, Serzh Sargsyan, won. Although he received 58 per cent of votes, an unexpectedly high result (36 per cent) was achieved by Raffi Hovannisian, the former foreign minister and leader of the opposition Heritage party. Hovannisian did not accept the legitimacy of Sargsyan’s victory, claiming that the election was falsified and that he was the real winner.
After almost a one-month long hunger strike on Liberty Square in Yerevan, Hovannisian managed to gather thousands of supporters on April 9th, the day of the inauguration of Sargsyan’s new presidential term. This huge manifestation and massive march towards the presidential palace gave hope to Hovannisian and his team that there would be a chance for a peaceful change of the current ruling elite. As Hovannisian and his team have often mentioned, the first opportunity of gaining success was to be local elections.
And indeed it was, although this opportunity has been lost; and this was the last opportunity for a long time, as the next elections are not expected until 2017. Unfortunately for Hovannisian, the results of the local elections have proved the opinion of many observers of the Armenian political scene, that the significant social support given to the Heritage party’s leader in the presidential election was a consequence of the popular discontent with President Sargsyan and his Republican Party.
It was not, however, a sign of confidence in Hovannisian and his political team. In the elections to the Yerevan City Council, the ruling party received an overwhelming majority of seats (42 from 65). Hovannisian’s electoral bloc Hello Yerevan came third with only 6 seats after the quasi oppositional Prosperous Armenia party, which gained 17. It is worth mentioning that in the previous city council of Yerevan, the opposition, namely the Armenian National Congress, had 13 seats. The Congress will now not enter the Council and will be replaced by the Hello Yerevan bloc as the oppositional force. What’s more important is that the hegemony of the ruling party has been strengthened.
According to observers from the Council of Europe, the May 5th elections proceeded peacefully and lawfully, and constituted progress in comparison with previous elections. Many Armenian opposition politicians and intellectuals are disappointed with Europe’s acceptance of the Republican government, which in their opinion is not legitimate. As Hovannisian said at the meeting on April 9th, from that moment Serzh Sargsyan “ceases to represent the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian people”.
Similar radical statements by the opposition claiming the authorities to be illegitimate were repeated after the parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2012, as well as the presidential election in 2008. After the May 5th elections, Hovannisian’s Hello Yerevan bloc already stated that it will demand a recount of the votes in several constituencies.
Eventually, as it has been many times before, the opposition will be forced to accept rules set by the authorities and play their game. Nevertheless, the fact of the lack of Armenian society’s confidence towards the electoral process and the legitimacy of the authorities should not be taken for granted. Neither should the fact of the ruling party’s dominance in parliament and the Yerevan City Council, nor the weakness of the opposition.
Will this situation lead to the creation of an autocratic system? Looking back at Armenia’s recent political history, it is easy to prove that the level of democracy and political freedom has fluctuated. No doubt the worst situation was in 2008, when ten people were fatally shot during the demonstrations after the presidential election and many protesters were arrested. However, in subsequent years the government started dialogue with the opposition and liberalised the system. Many observers underlined the relatively high media freedom in Armenia during the last three electoral campaigns. If it were not for this evolution, Raffi Hovannisian would not be able to seriously challenge Serzh Sargsyan in the presidential election.
What forces the authorities to slowly move towards more democratic standards is certainly not only internal, but first of all external factors. Perhaps, the most important factors are Armenia’s relations with the United States and the European Union. Although the impact of the Armenian American diaspora on the political life in Yerevan is often overestimated, the ruling elite has to take care of its image in the eyes of compatriots in Los Angeles, New York and Boston.
One significant example of how important this image is, was Serzh Sargsyan’s reaction to a letter by ArmenianAmerican rock star Serj Tankian, leader of the cult group System of a Down. Despite the fact of the harsh, critical tone of Tankian’s letter, accusing the authorities of rigging the February election, Sargsyan responded to him publicly in a warm and fatherly manner. What really matters are of course not the artist’s feelings, but America’s support for Armenia, the country which has become stuck in a conflict with two strong neighbours and vulnerable to Russia’s political influence.
The EU’s impact on Yerevan shouldn’t be underestimated either. Former chief of the Armenian Central Bank Tigran Sargsyan was appointed prime minister in 2008 as an independent technocrat with a good reputation in the West. His main goal was to reform the Armenian economy and integrate it into the global market. Sargsyan’s efforts were not entirely successful partially due to the resistance of bureaucracy, as well as the challenges posed by the global economic crisis.
When the EU initiated its new offer to the Caucasus countries in 2009, in the form of the Eastern Partnership programme, the prime minister became an eager adherent of the rapprochement with the EU. Armenia has recently finished negotiations with the EU on the Association Agreement (AA), which will most probably be initialled during the November Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. The decisive part of the AA, which may indeed transform the Armenian economy in the long-term, is the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU.
Not only are the ruling elite in Yerevan growingly aware of this fact, but also the business community of Armenia. Thus, one can only hope that all the political forces in the country, including the Republicans, the opposition and Prosperous Armenia, currently out of the government, but still close to it, will support this process. However, its success is conditioned not only by the authorities’ efforts to reform the economy in line with the EU’s recommendations, it will also depend on the Republican government’s ability to advance the democratisation of the country.
After last year’s three electoral victories, the ruling elite in Yerevan may yield to temptation, making preservation of the hegemony the only political goal.
Konrad Zasztowt is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and specialises in the South Caucasus and Central Asia regions. Previously he worked at the National Security Bureau (2008-2010), where he monitored international security issues in the Black Sea and Caspian regions. He is a graduate of the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology and East European Studies at University of Warsaw and also studied at Yeditepe University in Turkey (2003-2005). His areas of interest include international relations and energy security issues in the Black Sea region (Ukraine, the Caucasus, Turkey) and Central Asia, ethnic and religious minorities as well as the issue of Islam in the former Soviet Union.