Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Little Hope of More Democracy

Sense of being surrounded by threats impedes creation of fairer society.
By Vahan Dilanyan

Although there is still more than a year to go until the next parliamentary election, opposition parties in Armenia are already calling their followers onto the streets.

There is plenty of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo, driven by rising prices and widespread poverty. But experts say the scope for channelling that into real change is limited by Armenia’s difficult relationships abroad, which its current leaders can always cite as justification for tough controls at home.

Armenia is still officially at war with Azerbaijan, and its troops garrison the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorny Karabakh, so ruling politicians can play the national security card if their authority is threatened. This has allowed them to fend off demands for democratic reforms.

The government’s authoritarian tendencies, and its insistence on supporting Karabakh, has won support from big businesses keen to keep their monopolies safe from the Azerbaijani and Turkish competitors who might flood in if a peace deal was signed.

Opposition parties seeking to harness popular resentment of the government believe there is a limit to what people will put up with in the name of national security.

“One fine day, a people who have nothing to lose and who have been driven to extreme suffering, might cease to care about the views of opinion of parliament, and even about Karabakh,” Armenian National Congress, ANC, leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan told a rally of supporters last month.

Experts say, however, that most people are not prepared to abandon their fellow-Armenians in Karabakh, and fear a possible repeat of the conflict with Azerbaijan. This plays into the government’s hands.

“It’s clear the Armenian public has a keen sense of the danger of new war with Azerbaijan. That means that both the public and the opposition are more restrained than they might be], and that citizens have to opt for political stability over democratisation in many areas,” Garik Keryan, head of politics in Yerevan State University’s international relations faculty, said.

Commentators say the government tolerates political freedoms as long as they do not interfere with its grip on power, while the opposition movement remains divided among competing personalities. People who attend opposition protests are often there because they are against the government rather than actively drawn to the opposition.

Ter-Petrosyan’s ANC fails to make much ground because he alienated many people in his time as Armenian president in the 1990s.

“Look what this government has driven me to. I have a law degree and I’m driving a taxi. They’re forcing people to team up with Levon,” Artur, a 29-year-old Yerevan resident said. “I remember the days of Levon’s government – it was terrible then. But what else can you do? These politicians are just humiliating us.”

Ter-Petrosyan has ruled out a swift attempt to win power, comparing his political strategy to a game of chess. That has led many analysts to argue that he is not interested in changing the political set-up radically, just in putting himself and his followers at the head of it.

Political battles in Armenia are often more about competing individuals than different ideologies.

“The ANC probably a few tens of thousands of supporters, and the Heritage party has fewer, since it isn’t as well-organised,” public relations expert Samvel Martirosyan said. “Heritage more closely resembles a collection of individuals.”

The divisions among opposition groups were graphically evident on March 17, when Ter-Petrosyan was taking part in a protest meeting in central Yerevan and went past Heritage leader Raffi Hovhannisyan without acknowledging the fact that the latter had been staging a hunger strike for the past two days.

Arman Vardanyan, chairman of the Union of Young Politicians of Armenia, said recent remarks made by Ter-Petrosyan, 66, might indicate he was considering stepping down as ANC leader. But finding a replacement of similar standing would be difficult.

“Ter-Petrosyan was making it plain he didn’t intend to stand in the next [2013] presidential election. But in my opinion, no newcomer is going to be able to present a serious challenge to the current president, Serzh Sargsyan,” Vardanyan said.

He predicted that the ANC would win around 25 per cent of the seats in parliament in the May 2012 election, while the Heritage Party and Dashnakutsyun, a party now in opposition but formerly part of the ruling coalition, would probably struggle to surpass the five per cent threshold needed to gain any seats at all.

The result, Vardanyan said, would be that the ruling coalition would maintain its grip on power, and there would be little progress towards a more democratic system.

Keryan ascribes Armenia’s failure to build a more open political system in the two decades since independence to economic problems, the Karabakh war and its legacy of isolation in the region, and the continuing influence of Russia.

“For 20 years, Armenia has seen its security as depending on its strategic partnership with Russia,” he said. “This could change only if there were major geopolitical changes in the region, and those changes haven’t happened.”

Last year, the two countries agreed to extend the stay of Russian troops in Armenia. An official strategy paper on national security reaffirms that a continued Russian presence in the South Caucasus is crucial for Armenia. While the document also talks about greater cooperation with NATO members, most analysts say the authorities would never stray too far from Moscow.

Meanwhile, a rapprochement with Turkey which has emerged over recent years appears to have ground to a halt.

With no change to the external environment, observers say there is little impetus to move away from the current system dominated by a small political elite and by oligarchs with vested economic interests.

“There is a privileged caste which is not only able to bypass the law but which uses the state to pursue its own ends,” Arman Rustamyan, a member of parliament from the opposition Dashnakutsyun party, said.

Hovsep Khurshudyan, an expert from the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, said that despite the government’s declared intention of pursuing reforms, “the economy remains in the hands of a few families which also have political influence”.

“The government is unable to force the big oligarchs to pay taxes, so it’s forced to place the whole tax burden on small and medium-sized businesses and on ordinary citizens, who will soon refuse to put up with this, or will emigrate,” Khurshudyan added.

Vazgen Manoukyan, who heads of the Public Council, a government advisory body set up by President Sargsyan in 2009, told IWPR that while Armenia had a democratic constitution, there were problems in practice with elections, freedom of speech and the judicial system.

“The parliamentary and presidential elections of 1990 and 1991 were democratic, but 1995 and 1996 saw a huge step backwards, and the tradition of electoral fraud has continued since then, albeit with some modification,” he said.

Manoukyan said free speech was marred by the removal of the A1+ TV channel from the airwaves some years ago, the judicial system was far from perfect, and economic domination by the oligarchs had curbed both market competition and the growth of democratic institutions.

Vahan Dilanyan is a freelance reporter in Armenia.

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