Armenia Reoriented or Disoriented?


 

By Edmond Y. Azadian

October 10, 2014 will become an important date for Armenia, since on that day, two significant events took place, not necessarily coincidentally. The first event was the signing of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by President Serge Sargisian in Minsk, and the second one was the opposition rally at the Republic Square.

Since Armenia broke off negotiations with the European Union in September 2013, it has been waiting at the door of the Russian-led Customs Union, which Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan had formed.

Although Armenia was coerced into relinquishing its economic ties with the European Union, it could not become a founding member of the Customs Union; instead, Yerevan was kept waiting for 13 more months to join the Customs Union, with dubious benefits in the prospect. Despite those intimidating circumstances, the speakers at the opposition rally recognized that it was an unavoidable act to which Armenian had to commit itself.

That was the reorientation of Armenia away from Europe and further into Russia’s embrace.

Armenia’s destiny is locked in place by certain determinants, which no administration — new or the status quo — can change; the Russian geostrategic position is one determinant which is forced by historic relations and geographic proximity. The other determinant is the economic blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan stifling the country to compromise its future. A third determinant may be the sending of funds by Armenia’s citizens abroad to their families in Armenia. That is in steady decline and one day it may be reduced to catastrophic levels.

The last determining factor is the corruption endemic in all former Soviet republics and any single country cannot stamp it out it because the entire region is engulfed in the system.

Mikhail Saakashvili tried to uproot corruption in Georgia while he was president and today he is a wanted man by the Tbilisi authorities. Therefore, as unsavory as it may sound, corruption cannot be controlled, especially in a poor country. This does not mean that the country should give up hope in fighting corruption. But it means one thing: that no opposition can deliver it overnight, no matter how loudly it may claim it can.

Armenia’s foreign policy is reoriented by outside forces, but its domestic policies could be directed through the interaction of political forces. That interaction, however, thus far has only led the country to disorientation.

During the last presidential and parliamentary elections, Sargisian’s Republican Party was able to decimate the opposition and come out on top. The election was also approved with reservations by international observers. The method was all too familiar — an election system that every previous administration has implemented and perhaps, every future political force will continue as well.

A case in point is the reappointment of Syunik governor Sourik Khatchatryan, despite claims he has criminal ties. Similar appointments were made in Shirak and elsewhere. As long as these kingpins deliver votes, they can break any law with impunity.

The opposition can rightfully cry wolf and call the current regime criminal and oligarchic, but how many political assassinations were committed during Levon Ter-Petrosian’s watch?

The time in office of Robert Kocharian, who is waiting in the wings to throw his hat in the presidential race, was marred by the massacre at the parliament, as well as the March 1 killings at Freedom Square.

Both during and after the last elections, many defections took place in the ranks of Ter-Petrosian’s HAK coalition, weakening it significantly. But he did not give up hope. He continued courting the Prosperous Armenia Party and its leader Gagik Zaroukyan, a prominent oligarch who was in the coalition with Sargisian’s Republican Party. He gradually shifted towards the opposition  and October 10 could become a victory day for LTP because that day Zaroukyan joined him on the podium at the opposition rally. He also was able to lure Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage Party to form the “magnificent” trio of opposition parties in the parliament. That trio may become the “magnificent quartet,” if the ARF (Dashnag) party eventually decides to join. The ruling party has offered ambassadorial posts and other lucrative position to keep the ARF on a short leash. That is why the party did not participate in the October 10 rally, where Ter-Petrosian announced that “we understand and respect their position,” although during his presidency, he jailed the ARF leadership, harassed their members and destroyed their publication facilities.

The October 10 rally and the rallies preceding it in the provinces were well attended and were conducted in an orderly manner. One truth was proven at the rally, that contrary to claims, there was no tyranny in Armenia. Otherwise, 10,000 people could not gather in one place and harangue “the criminal oligarchy” to give up the rule or chant “we want an Armenia without Sergik.”

The other topics were poverty, corruption, emigration and lawlessness, which are on the minds of every citizen.

Ter-Petrosian vowed to continue the campaign in an orderly fashion, based on the constitutional rights of the citizens.

Aram Manukyan provided statistics about the dire situation in the country and cited the causes which were driving citizens to leave the country in droves.

The opposition has submitted a list of 12 demands to the government for reform.

It would benefit the country if a healthy opposition is formed to fight on political grounds to take over the rule. But the irony in this case is that one of the presidential candidates is a prominent oligarch, Gagik Zaroukian, a kind-hearted benefactor with a wrestler’s demeanor. One could argue why not Zaroukian as president, if a former wrester, Jesse Ventura, was able to become the governor of Wisconsin?

Recaping the EEU Treaty, there are at least two caveats which will concern every Armenian, regardless of their political affiliation. One is economic prospects in joining the Customs Union with Russia. The former director of Armenia’s Central Bank, Bagrat Asatryan, sees a 2-3 percent decline in transfers from Russia while Armenia needs a 10-percent increase in transfers for growth. But a more ominous concern, according to Asatryan is “In case of a 3-percent economic growth, no social problems can be solved. Three percent-growth will even serve as stimulus for emigration. To preserve this situation in Armenia a 6-8 percent economic growth is necessary. And unfortunately, there are no prerequisites for the situation to improve in 2015, 2016, and 2017.”

Asatryan mentioned that Armenia’s major partner, Russia, to which we turn nowadays, will have 0-percent growth, since sanctions will have a negative impact.

Under the above conditions, it looks like Armenia is linking its economic fortune to a sinking ship, unless a political development comes to rectify the situation.

Another caveat is the issue of Karabagh. Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev delayed Armenia’s participation in the treaty, arguing that Armenia should join the union with its “internationally recognized boundaries,” excluding Nagorno Karabagh, to satisfy President Aliyev in Azerbaijan. No such condition hampered Russia’s role questioning  the inclusion of Crimea.

As the treaty is signed by Armenia, there is no explanation whatsoever, if customs system will be implemented  on Armenia—Karabagh border. Only Mr. Aliyev is elated that if and when Azerbaijan joins the Customs Union, the signatories may admit Baku with Nagorno Karabagh as part of its territory.

As we can see the problems are way above the power of any party to resolve. Unity and concerted efforts by the ruling party and opposition may yield some results. Otherwise, no one can safely identify Armenia’s course, whether its reorienting or disorienting.