Armenia’s election: the waiting game

Vicken Cheterian
19 February 2008

The campaign for the presidential election in Armenia reaches its climax on 19 February 2008. The weeks of activity reflect a nation that has come a long way since the early days of independence in 1991, yet still seems blocked in its internal politics by the dominance of the leading figures of the "Karabakh Movement" that have held sway in Armenian politics for the last two decades.

A number of candidates will be on the ballot-paper - nine registered on the required date of 18 January - but the choice of direction for the country is symbolised by the two leading candidates: the current prime minister Serzh Sarkisian and the former president Levon Ter-Petrossian represent the same political traditions. Sarkisian, like the current president, Robert Kocharian (of whom he is a close ally), comes from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, while Ter-Petrossian (president 1991-98) is a Syria-born child of a repatriated diaspora family. Both Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian entered politics in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, when the Soviet system was being opened up to new currents and ideas and the political monopoly of the Soviet communist party (CPSU) was ending. A more local factor propelling both figures into political activity in these years was the demands of the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh - an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan, in which Armenians formed the majority of the population - to join neighbouring Soviet Armenia.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva.

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

"Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

Sarkisian's introduction to Armenian politics was the result of Levon Ter-Petrossian's patronage: he had been head of the state-committee of Karabakh's self-defence forces when in 1993 he was invited to Yerevan to become the Armenian minister of defence. He has also served as head of state security in Yerevan, before being nominated for the prime ministership in March 2007; his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) won the legislative elections of May 2007 by a clear majority. Sarkisan is the preferred successor of Robert Kocharian, who was first elected in February 1998, was re-elected in 2003, and is prevented by the constitution from running for a third term in office). Both men are natives of Karabakh, and their political association dates back to the Soviet-era Komsomol and the Karabakh Movement. Sarkisian (who has a clear lead in most current opinion-polls) is therefore the candidate who represents the regime, stability and continuity.

Levon Ter-Petrossian, the former patron of both Sarkisian and Kocharian, is the leading candidate of change. An orientalist and specialist in ancient languages, Ter-Petrossian was a researcher at Matenadaran, the institute of ancient Armenian manuscripts in Yerevan, when he was propelled to politics as the leader of a mass movement to support demands in Nagorno-Karabakh for reunification with Armenia. He was elected as the first president of independent Armenia in 1991, and led the country in the difficult early years of independence. His presidency was marred by opposition accusations of rigging in the 1996 elections, after which he deployed the army to suppress mass protests. In 1998, his close collaborators forced Ter-Petrossian to resign on the grounds that he had appeared to softening his position on a touchstone issue of Armenian politics: the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was then the subject of negotiation.

To understand the achievements and shortcomings of Armenian politics today, it is necessary to reconsider those times of trouble, when the basis of Armenia's political institutions was established. The fact that the figure of Levon Ter-Petrossian continues both to represent a certain continuity yet offer change highlights the way that Armenia remains the prisoner of the paradoxes of the independence years, and has yet to create the conditions for a new generation of political leaders to emerge.

No time to lose

In the early 1990s, following the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Armenia as an independent state, the country's experience was cataclysmic. The towns of Spitak and Leninakan (Gyumri) had already suffered an enormous earthquake on 7 December 1988 which killed over 25,000 people and destroyed a third of the country's industrial capacity. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet state effectively severed relationships with Armenia's main economic partner, Russia. A number of industrial towns which were dependent on the Soviet military-industrial complex, such as Vanatsor and Charentsavan, were suddenly deprived of their income and jobs.

As if this were not enough, the conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh quickly escalated into an open war in which the other side had superior human and material resources. The consequences were dramatic: thousands of casualties, and even more refugees and internally displaced, as much of the rare means available in the country was invested in the war effort. Thus, the first year of independence presented Armenia with huge challenges: build a new state out of the remnants of its Soviet administration, change its economy from a "planned" to a "market" system while both local private capital and international investments were lacking, and fight a territorial war with its eastern neighbour.

The consequences were heavy: economic production fell by half in the year following independence; then, in early 1993 the energy system collapsed, and the country could not afford more than two hours of electricity per day. As one result, there was huge emigration involving over one million people, that is more than a quarter of the population.

Also in openDemocracy about Armenia and Armenians:

Nouritza Matossian, "Disinterring the past" (30 July 2001)

Sabine Freizer, "Armenia's emptying democracy" (30 November 2005)

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart,"Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey" (7 February 2006)

Seda Muradyan, "A politics of myth" (12 December 2006)

Shaun Walker & Daria Vaisman, "Nagorno-Karabakh's referendum" (14 December 2006)

Sabine Freizer, "Nagorno-Karabakh: between vote and reality" (14 December 2006)

Hratch Tchilingirian, "Hrant Dink and Armenians in Turkey" (23 February 2007)Under these circumstances, the state had no capacity to undertake slow reforms. The only option was to move ahead, fast. As a result, Armenia was able to undergo quick reforms in two areas of the kind that in other countries would have taken years to implement: first, building a strong army and fusing it with the Karabakh forces to face Azerbaijan; second, mass privatisation that started by distributing land to peasants and old factories to new oligarchs. These policies paid off. Karabakh, supported by the Armenian military, emerged victorious and reached a ceasefire agreement in May 1994. It took longer to restart the economy, but that too entered a phase of rapid growth in the late 1990s. Any visitor to Yerevan today will see construction sites all over the city centre, the foundation (along with service industries) of a new economy.

The old and the new

The people of Armenia remember Levon Ter-Petrossian for the difficult years of the 1990s - the economic collapse, the many and often corrupt privatisation schemes, the development of an oligarchic system. Yet it was under Ter-Petrossian's leadership that the conditions were created that allowed today's freer economy to emerge. It was also at that time that the foundations of the current political system were laid down: the usage of "administrative resources" during elections to keep in place either the incumbent (as when Ter-Petrossian won the 1996 elections) or a person designated by him (as the Kocharian-Sarkisian alliance is attempting today). During his presidency, Ter-Petrossian made a priority of preserving his power rather than preparing the way for the development of democratic practices.

Thus the chain of responsibility for both the achievements and the problems of Armenia's economy and political life is tangled. This has not prevented rival leaders adopting vehement language in making their case; in preparing the way for his return to the political arena in September 2007, Ter-Petrossian condemned what he described as Kocharian's "corrupt, criminal regime, whose relations are governed not by laws, not by the will of the people, not by political dialogue, but by the rules of the underworld."

The campaign speeches have focused on creating jobs, fighting corruption in the state administration, and different approaches to bring a solution for the Karabakh conflict. Sarkisian, confidently expecting victory as the votes are cast, is seen as closer to Russia and as having a hardline position on relations with Azerbaijan, while Ter-Petrossian is seen as leaning more to the west and being more ready for compromise over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. But it is hard to find the essential difference between them merely in what they have promised during their campaigns.

For many in Yerevan the choice between Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian is not a real choice: "Ter-Petrossian's...only plan is replacing people - Serzh Sarkisian and Kocharian with Ter-Petrossian" writes one commentator, "rather than an ideological struggle. And if a person should be replaced by another person, what difference does it make to a regular resident who is in charge of appointing mayors, or whether the unfair court verdict is carried out by by Levon Ter-Petrossian's or Kocharian's or Sargisian's order?"

Yet how the next president is elected will make a huge difference to Armenia's political system. If Sarkisian wins, Armenia will go through another period of elite perpetuation. If Ter-Petrossian wins (as he claims he will, despite the polling evidence), it will be the first time since 1991 that an elite will have been forced to bow to popular sentiment and leave power to anther elite. That outcome would constitute one essential step Armenia needs to create democratic institutions, and give confidence to its people that elections could lead to a transfer of power. It may be ironic, but hope for change in Armenia is personified once again in the character of Levon Ter-Petrossian.

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