At a press conference during a recent trip in Tavush, the north-eastern region of Armenia on 9 April, President Serzh Sargsyan surprised the journalists accompanying him by responding to their questions, even the topical ones. His reluctance to face the press was largely a function of the massive problems he inherited in this former Soviet country in the 18th year of its independence. President Sargsyan has tried to address these problems in the course of his first two years in power, even if his attempts have not always respected the principles of democracy.
What are these problems?
The first concerns the immaturity of our political system.
Sargsyan became Armenia's third president in an election held on February 19, 2008. He won outright, in the first round, with 52% of the vote. That, at least, was the official version. The outcome was challenged by his main rival, the first President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Like the other opposition candidates, he claimed that votes had been rigged in favour of Sargsyan. Ter-Petrosian’s supporters organised mass demonstrations, which culminated in clashes on 1 March 2008, when 10 people were killed and hundreds wounded
These tragic events revealed that at the start of Sargsyan’s presidency the country lacked:
- a reliable voting system: since 1996 the results of all national elections had been disputed
- a mature system of political parties, as reflected in the response of many of the parties, not least Sargsyan’s own Republican Party of Armenia, to the events of February 19 - March 1
- an adequate parliament: a significant number of members had become MPs simply to promote their own interests or acquire immunity from prosecution
- effective law-enforcement agencies: not only did they fail to ensure that the election was properly conducted, they failed to carry out an unbiased and professional inquiry into the tragic events of 1 March. But the most serious problem was the lack of independent and respected courts.
The result was political crisis. Sargsyan’s administration was forced immediately to address the problems thrown up by the dramatic election and the tragic events that followed. He appeared to realise that the country needed political reforms and he tried to initiate them.
He could not act against the ruling elite, of course, even had he wanted to do so. His first move was to prosecute the supporters of his rival, Ter-Petrosian, on the grounds that they were to blame for voting irregularities and the ensuing violence. According to most observers (including from the Council of Europe) the authorities were largely to blame for the infringements. But those who were arrested were almost entirely supporters of Ter-Petrosian. In the trials that followed, some 80 people were found guilty. They have been recognised as political prisoners by human rights organisations. But no one was held responsible for the 1 March deaths. The crimes have remained undisclosed, the murderers unpunished and none of the victims' relatives have received any compensation. The victims included soldiers of the police troops and people who appeared by chance among the victims. In short, Sargsyan started by attacking his political opponents.
In June 2009, when most of these trials were over, Sargsyan’s administration declared an amnesty, which enabled most of these political prisoners to go free. Some 15 people are still in jail.
At the same time, Sargsyan initiated a thorough, though not widely publicised, reform of the police. Since parliament was clearly not sufficiently representative, he also set up a Public Council to bridge the gap between government and the people.
Regulation of the activities of political parties has been an important feature of Sargsyan's attempted reforms. His own party, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), stands in sore need of this. Its history is typical of a party from one of the countries emerging from the former Soviet Union.
Founded in the late 1980s by a small group of nationalists, RPA really developed in 1998. At that time a group of militants led by Vazgen Sargsyan (then Defence Minister, and no relation) joined the party in order to be able to take part in the parliamentary elections. Vazgen Sargsyan became Prime Minster and membership in the RPA became an “entrance ticket” to state structures. This dominance was cemented by his tragic death (he was killed by gunmen on October 27, 1999). By 2006, the RPA controlled the majority of the parliament seats and more than 60% of the communities. It was then that Serzh Sargsyan (then a non-partisan Minister of Defence) joined the party and was immediately elected its Chairman, although he still lacked a power base in it.
As President of Republic Serzh Sargsyan is thus the formal leader of an organisation which has had an overwhelming influence on Armenian politics, though it is not a real political structure itself: its main leverages are what are known in the former Soviet countries as «administrative resources». This refers to a whole set of semi-legal and illegal means ranging from bribing the voters and falsifying vote counts to intimidating opponents and exerting pressure on law-enforcement agencies. RPA members felt no need to behave like politicians and the RPA as a whole could more aptly be described as a “trade union for the authorities” rather than a political party.
It became clear at its last party congress in November 2009 that Serzh Sargsyan has been making real efforts to turn the RPA into a real political party, that is to say an organisation which really has the interests of the nation at heart, and which is tolerant enough to engage with its opponents. How successful his efforts will be, remains to be seen.
A weak economy
The second largest problem is the economy. From 2001 to 2007 it grew very rapidly, by more than 10% per annum. But it had serious underlying problems.
Tigran Sargsyan (another Sargsyan who is no relation) had been Chairman of the Central Bank for 10 years. When he was appointed Prime Minister he was well aware of these problems. As soon as he was appointed, on April 10, 2008, he declared his intention of getting the economy back on track. The most serious issue was the government failure to collect taxes. The fact that some businesses, particularly the ‘oligarchs’, rich businessmen with close links to state officials, were able to avoid paying their fair share of tax meant that they were at an unfair advantage by comparison with other companies. Smaller businesses just could not compete with them.
The struggle of Tigran Sargsyan’s government for a fairer and more competitive economy is a long story. What made it particularly difficult was that many of the oligarchs belong to the ruling elite and are members of parliament. So bills aimed at establishing fairer conditions for businesses are difficult to get through parliament and to implement.
Suffice it to say, that when the global financial crisis reached Armenia in 2009, the economic downturn was one of the most serious in the world:after seven years of rapid growth it shrunk by 14.6%. The anti-crisis programme put in place by the two Sargsyans was deemed successful and the economy is recovering this year. But the remaining economic problems will not be easy to overcome.
Relations with Turkey
The issue of normalising relations with Turkey is the other problem to which Serzh Sargsyan has paid great attention, because resolving it could have a considerable effect on both politics and the economy.
The main obstacle is Armenia’s conflict with its eastern neighbour, Azerbaijan, over Nagorno- Karabakh. Azerbaijan has closed its borders with Armenia and blockaded all communications, including the main railway lines.
For its part Turkey, Armenia’s western neighbour and a country ethnically related to Azerbaijan, has acted in a very similar way. Turkey too has closed its border with Armenia, set up a trade embargo on it and refuses to establish normal diplomatic relations. As a result, little Armenia has only two ways of connecting with the rest of the world: through Georgia (rail and sea ports) and through Iran (motorway only). These ways are not always safe (as shown by the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008), and Armenia always has the problems arising from a non-friendly environment. If Armenia manages to change its status of “besieged fortress”, this could clearly have an extremely positive effect on all aspects of its life.
The first overture began in 2008, when Sargsyan invited his Turkish colleague, Abdullah Gul, to watch a soccer game in Yerevan. A year later, two protocols on the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey were signed in Zurich. But they have not yet been enacted, as Turkey is reluctant to ratify them in the parliament.
Uniquely, all the great powers support the normalisation. The USA, the European Union, Russia and France sometimes have conflicting interests in this region. But they are all putting pressure on Turkey, as they believe that normalisation with Armenia would make the region safer and more stable.
The most recent attempt was the meeting of Serzh Sargsyan with the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, DC on April 12. There is as yet no very clear result from this meeting and those which both men held separately with American officials, including President Barack Obama. For Turkey looks as if it has returned to its earlier position of linking progress in the normalisation of relations with progress on the intractable issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Time alone will tell whether all bridges on the path to re-establishing bilateral relations been burned.