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Economist: Armenia's murky politics
Old 11.04.2007, 13:18   #1
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Talking Economist: Armenia's murky politics


Armenia's murky politics

Apr 11th 2007
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire
Campaigning begins for a rigged election

Campaigning for Armenia’s parliamentary election, scheduled for May 12th, began officially on April 8th. The contest will be watched closely by foreign observers, as it could predetermine the fate of the country’s political leadership. Victory in the legislative election is seen as crucial to President Robert Kocharian’s apparent plan to hand over power to his most influential associate, Serzh Sarkisian, who became prime minister on April 4th following the death in office of premier Andranik Markarian. Mr Kocharian, in power since 1998, also seems keen to retain a key role in government after completing his second and final term in office early next year.

The president and Mr Sarkisian will therefore go to great lengths to ensure that the former Soviet republic’s parliament continues to be dominated by their political allies. The latter are tipped to grab the vast majority of parliament seats through a combination of vote-rigging, vote-buying and control of the media. For this reason, there is widespread scepticism about government assurances that the elections will put an end to Armenia’s post-Soviet history of electoral fraud.
By fair means or foul

Twenty-eight parties and about two hundred individual candidates have filed for registration with the Central Election Commission to vie for 131 seats in Armenia’s National Assembly. Ninety of those seats will be up for grabs under the system of proportional representation, with the remaining 41 seats to be contested in nationwide constituencies on the first-past-the-post basis.

With credible opinion polls practically non-existent in the country, it is not easy to gauge the electoral chances of various contenders. Popularity alone will not guarantee success. In terms of ability to secure the largest number of votes, the clear frontrunner is the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Nominally headed by Mr Markarian until his death, it has over the past year come increasingly under the control of Mr Sarkisian.

The HHK is a typical post-Soviet “party of power” mainly comprising senior government officials, civil servants, and wealthy business people dependent on government connections. It can wield enormous administrative resources, through control of the electoral process coupled with voter intimidation and heavy televised propaganda. The Armenian press has been awash with reports of local government chiefs being instructed by party bosses to earn the HHK a particular number of votes in their respective areas at any cost or risk dismissal. Accordingly, they have reportedly been forcing scores of public sector employees such as doctors and schoolteachers to join the governing party.

The HHK’s de facto takeover by Mr Sarkisian in mid-2006 has also meant that it now enjoys the crucial backing of most members of the country’s business elite. The so-called “oligarchs” often hold sway in a particular part of the country and are in a position to bully and/or bribe voters. Many of them already helped the HHK win the previous parliamentary elections that were judged to be undemocratic by Western observers. There are no indications that the HHK will be seeking to prevail by more legitimate means this time around. A strong HHK showing is vital for the realisation of Mr Sarkisian’s presidential ambitions.
Kocharian’s choice

That Mr Sarkisian, widely regarded as Armenia’s second most powerful man, is Mr Kocharian’s preferred successor seems a given. Both men are natives of Nagorny-Karabakh who played a major role in the Armenian-populated disputed enclave’s 1991-1994 secessionist war with Azerbaijan. They have worked in tandem and jointly weathered many political storms since moving to top government positions in Yerevan in the late 1990s.

The question is just how strong Mr Kocharian would like his heir apparent to be. The 52-year-old president made it clear last December that he will not become “Armenia’s youngest pensioner” after leaving office, suggesting that he wants to continue to pull the government strings in some official capacity. There is mounting speculation that he is eying the post of prime minister. Whatever Mr Kocharian’s exact intentions, it is evident that he is trying to secure his political future by covertly sponsoring another election favourite: the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of Gagik Tsarukian, the wealthiest of the local oligarchs.

The BHK launched its activities little more than a year ago and claims to have since recruited as many as 370,000 members, or 12% of the Armenian state’s population. The party is capitalising on its leader’s vast financial resources, which are being spent on distribution of agricultural relief, free medical aid, and other public services to large numbers of impoverished people. The aid, condemned as a wholesale buying of votes by opposition and even some HHK leaders, is earning Mr Tsarukian a populist appeal that should translate into solid voter support for his party on polling day. BHK supporters are too disillusioned with the traditional Armenian parties to care about a huge disparity between Mr Tsarukian’s conspicuous wealth and modest taxes levied from his businesses.

Expert opinion differs only on whether the BHK was set up as a counterweight to the governing HHK or as a powerful addition to the government camp. Despite occasional signs of friction and mutual jealousy, the two parties are unlikely to openly clash both during and in the wake of the May 12th vote. Furthermore, there is a conspiracy theory that they have already amicably divided most parliament seats between themselves and form a coalition government.
Divided opposition

The BHK phenomenon makes it easier for the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo to prevent their political opponents from having a strong presence in the next Armenian parliament. Their task is further facilitated by the failure of Armenia’s leading opposition parties to form electoral alliances. Voters hostile to the government will have a hard time picking one of more than a dozen opposition contenders with virtually identical platforms. Many of them might therefore not bother to vote at all.

The three largest opposition parties are led by Mr Kocharian’s two main challengers in the 2003 presidential election, Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. The latter’s pro-Western Country of Law Party was forced out of the governing coalition in May 2006. All three opposition leaders feel that they are popular enough to do well on their own. Only Mr Demirchian has considered teaming up with several smaller opposition parties, notably the Republic Party of Aram Sarkisian (no relation to the defense minister), a former prime minister who is the regime’s most dangerous and uncompromising foe.

Those parties failed to reach agreement even among themselves, reportedly bickering over who should be the would-be bloc’s top leader. Only two of them, Republic and the Heritage Party of the US-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, stand a chance of clearing the 5% threshold for entering parliament under the proportional system. The Armenian opposition also failed to put into practice Republic’s idea of fielding common candidates in the 41 single-mandate electoral districts. The individual constituencies are usually swept by wealthy pro-government candidates, and this is likely to happen once again on May 12th.

With the election likely to follow an all too familiar pattern, there is a strong possibility of joint opposition demonstrations in Yerevan in the immediate aftermath of the polls. Whether or not the opposition can pull large crowds is a different matter. Its most recent attempt to topple the government with a campaign of street protests ended in failure in spring 2004.
Aid in the balance

The US and the EU have repeatedly warned that a repeat of serious vote irregularities would be fraught with negative consequences for the Armenian authorities. The US, in particular, has tied provision of US$235 million in economic assistance to Armenia, promised under the Bush administration’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), to the proper conduct of the elections. But Washington will likely tread carefully now that Armenia and Azerbaijan seem to have made substantial progress towards a resolution of the Karabakh conflict, a key US foreign policy aim in the region. US and other diplomats involved in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks say the conflicting parties will try to cut a peace deal during the period between the Armenian legislative elections and presidential ballots due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan next year.

Assuming that it really sees a chance for Karabakh peace, Washington will hardly undercut the Kocharian administration if the polls are marred by serious fraud. The EU may likewise exercise caution, even though it has warned that a clean vote is a necessary condition for Armenia’s participation in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) framework for privileged ties with the bloc. Yet even the prospect of being left out of ENP or not receiving the badly needed MCA funds will hardly force Armenia’s two top leaders to finally hold an election according to Western standards—for them, far too much is at stake.
чем не тема опубликовать ответную в голосе аля алюр на трех постулатах

Last edited by Hrach_Techie; 11.04.2007 at 13:40.
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Old 19.04.2007, 07:13   #2
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Armenia’s cumbersome politics

On April 11th, 2007 the Economist Intelligence Unit issued an article on its Views Wire, titled Armenia’s Murky Politics. It is rather difficult to think that politics can be anything but murky – let us look into politics in the Western world, and try not to see the very many shades of murkiness; it will be a rather difficult task. It is the same West that says that politics is the art of the impossible, which is so true in the case of Armenia.

Armenia itself is an unprecedented case in political science, both in terms of its foreign and domestic politics. Where else in modern political history has a country been blockaded from its eastern and western access (Turkey and Azerbaijan) to the world markets, bordered in the north (Iran) with the most unpopular state in the world, bordered in the south with a state whose "neighbourliness" (Georgia) is conditioned by Russia's special relationship with Armenia and has managed to survive and build a sustainable economy. Perhaps Armenia, with its cumbersome politics must be looked at from a different prism, than those that usually are applied by the Western world, when examining the post-Soviet countries and their failures to build democracies.

Armenia's geopolitical positioning in a rather volatile region conditions its politics in a unique way. It is largely believed that domestic and foreign policies of a state are interconnected, and more often than not, it is the domestic politics that conditions the foreign policy of a state. In the case of Armenia, however, it is the opposite. A good example is its economy – if one is to look at the top goods which are produced and exported from Armenia, namely diamonds, precious metals, information technologies, etc., it becomes obvious that Armenia favours light, high-value added industries solely because it is what the country can afford to transport and not overprice, taking into consideration the lack of transport routes resulting from the blockades.

Perhaps, in the light of the abovementioned the politics of Armenia would seem more cumbersome than murky. Complex are also the upcoming elections, which will predetermine the fate of Armenia's political leadership, since the outcome of these elections will also condition the upcoming presidential elections in 2008.

It is obvious that President Kocharian will do everything possible to retain his allies in the Parliament, so as to ensure that the presidential succession of next year will be under his command. This is nothing but a mere political game. What many political actors fail to notice, whilst on their pedestal, is that much is occurring in the grassroots and the previously stagnant civil society is nurturing more hope in its strength to bring upon change. There is a continuing vote-rigging, vote buying and control of media, and even western media falls victim to this control. Few Western journalists visit new emerging political forces such as young parties, youth movements, NGO alliances and what not, which are on-the-go and despite the lack of access to media, do get their message across to the population.

Perhaps, these upcoming elections will add another page to Armenia's post-Soviet history of electoral fraud, or perhaps they will add a couple of more pages on how historical changes smooth, or perhaps not, occur.

Indeed, there are no credible opinion polls in the country. But even if they were, they would not provide accurate data on the chances of various contenders. It has been proven, time and again, that especially in developing countries the constituencies make their final decision on the day or at the very moment of their vote. A country with a long history of democratic elections, France, cannot conduct accurate polls either; most of the French voters are still undecided about their choices of the country’s future leader.

Most of the leading politicians in Armenia are absolutely unpopular amongst the population, and the constituencies for the most part do not have any incentive to cast their vote and are impotent to the actively led political campaigns. According to sociologists, this segment of the population is more likely to be paid off, and constitutes almost 60% of the voting population. But let's once again return to the subject that no opinion polls are believed to be credible, not even Gallup. The segment of the constituencies, which is believed to be less impotent and willing to cast their vote, in order to bring about change in the country is usually comprised of the younger generation, which is increasingly becoming active in the country's political life.

The Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) now led by Serj Sarkisian, the newly appointed Prime Minister, has been, just like its leader, too long involved in the politics of Armenia. Most of the population is tired of seeing the same political actors vowing empty promises. Composed of senior government officials and wealthy entrepreneurs, it possesses an enormous power and control through various means not only the electoral process but also the media. Nevertheless, this is a tape that has been already played a few times in a row. The control and intimidation can go so far and new faces, new movements, new spirit begin to emerge. Perhaps, these elections will be marred by fraud, but fraud can go so far too. The hopes amongst the young and reformatory politicians are high, that with the promises of the Western observers and investors, the frontrunner all-powerful parties will be more careful in clinging onto their chairs.

Indeed, there are no indications that the HHK will be seeking to prevail by more legitimate means this time round; equally, there are no indications of the opposite. Also, there are no clear indications as to why President Kocharian is sponsoring the other ”heavy weight” contender of the elections, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). Perhaps even ”sponsoring” is an incorrect term; a more appropriate one would be ”giving way”. Whether he is securing this party with an equally heavy-weight leader, the famous oligarch Gagik Tsarukian, for his political future in opposition to HHK or in alliance with it, is again, rather early to distinguish.

The BHK party has earned popularity through ”wholesale buying of votes” and subsequently Mr. Tsarukain has earned the populist appeal, but both the party’s and its leader’s popularity is alleged; and in no way is this popularity going to translate into solid voter support, there are absolutely no indications of that, just like there are no credible opinion polls. The number of BHK supporters is not confirmed (370 000) as well as there is no confirmation as to what extent these alleged supporters are disillusioned with the disparity between Mr. Tsarukian’s wealth and the modest taxes levied from his business. Just like President Kocharian’s intentions are yet unclear about his future political career, so is unclear the relationship between the two ”heavy weight” parties. And all the existing conspiracy theories will remain to be mere speculations, even after the elections.

Unfortunately, the so crucially important opposition, which would ensure certain balance in the political arena in Armenia, is weak and divided. However, despite the fact that there are no strong electoral alliances of the current opposition, the voters hostile to the government will vote for the opposition, because politics in Armenia is not so much about parties and alliance but more about individual politicians. Even though the parties of Raffi Hovhannisian, Stepan Demirchian, Artashes Geghamian, and Arthur Baghdasarian have failed to reach an agreement, the abovementioned politicians have high chances of being elected.

The followers of these and a number of other parties are few, but if combined, they represent a powerful force, which is highly likely to voice its protest if the elections are fraud. Most probably, the opposition will be stronger, once the elections will take place, and if the latter are marred by fraud, perhaps then the opposition will be able to unite stronger and succeed in gaining political leverage and organizing mass protests.

Armenia has stepped into a volatile phase of political vulnerability, and much is at stake. The country and its people have to fight this battle for democracy, but a much needed international assistance would be appreciated. Perhaps, both the US and the EU instead of sending warnings to cease the Millennium Challenge Account (US$ 235 million economic assistance) and discontinue the European Neighborhood Policy respectively, if the polls are marred by serious fraud, should adopt a different policy. Maybe incentive policies, such as, for example, pressuring Turkey to open its border, or greater opportunities for closer economic cooperation, would be more effective in convincing the government of Armenia to resort to fair means of conducting the upcoming elections.

By Irina Ghaplanyan
Independent Research Analyst

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