Armenia in Flux


editorialcartoonBy Edmond Y. Azadian

The current year has proved to be an eventful one for Armenia. At first, life was continuing along its normal course, the economy remained stagnant, the flow of emigration did not slacken and the government remained in full control of the situation, while at the same time fobbing off responsibility for the sorry state of things. The ruling class was reassured that the political opposition was crushed and fragmented; therefore no challenge would crop up.

But then, two events jolted the government and the people: the April war with Azerbaijan which resulted in some strategic losses, and the armed revolt of Sasna Tserer, which was a sign of desperation, if nothing else.

The president admitted that some things had to be changed, and that the business-as-usual assumption was no longer tolerable.

One sign of change was the sacking of Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan and his replacement with Karen Karapetyan. A few other ministers were also similarly replaced.

These changes brought about a temporary lull in political activities. But some foreign agitators, as well as genuine proponents of change, continued their activities and protests to create tension in the capital.

There are two factors which contribute to this desperate state of affairs. One is foreign machinations and Armenia’s unenviable strategic location; the other is the domestic stagnation. Granted, Armenia cannot control outside forces which determine its plight. But internal factors are manageable and within reach to improve the living conditions of the population and inspire hope for the future.

Armenia is surrounded by enemies and friends which only tend to their own interests. There is ongoing talk to set up transportation networks between Armenia and Iran. These talks have dragged on for years, yet the level of trade between the two countries remains at a minimal level. Hopes are raised to make Armenia a link between the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea and then agreements are signed between Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan, with Russia and Iran Armenia’s only friends in the region, but still cutting Armenia out.

Earlier this fall, the annual meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was held in Armenia. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbeyev feigned illness and did not show up. However, he has never missed a trip to Baku. The other ally and now chair of the group, the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who attended the meeting, and was one of the signatories of the alliance policy regarding the resolution of the Karabagh problem, visited Baku on October 14 and concluded several lucrative agreements with Azerbaijan in addition to signing a declaration issued by the Azeri government regarding Karabagh which contradicted the earlier declaration of the CSTO itself. Neither remarks, nor protests were raised by the other members of the CSTO; only Edward Sharmazanov, deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, issued a reminder to Mr. Lukashenko that he was contradicting himself at the expense of insulting Armenia.

Armenia recently signed an agreement with Russia to join military forces. Many believe this is a double-edged sword — either the Armenian army loses its independence or Russia will be engaged with Yerevan in case of a conflict.

Armenia’s mainland route and its lifeline to the outside world are through the Black Sea and Russia. At this time, hundreds of cargo trucks are stranded at the main border crossing between Armenia and Georgia. Our friend Georgia has found a way to damage Armenia’s meager volume of foreign trade.

Armenia’s former defense minister, Seyran Ohanian, was supposedly promoted to have a high position in CSTO Alliance. His appointment is still in limbo, most probably blocked by the other pro-Azeri members of the alliance. And Moscow is soft-pedaling the issue in the hopes that it can lure Baku to join the alliance. Strategically, it is in Azerbaijan’s favor to sit on the fence and receive favors from Russia and the West at the same time.

Clearly, Azerbaijan’s joining to the alliance will only strengthen the hand of the other unfriendly allies of Armenia. Besides, it will improve the trail of trade with Turkey where an important chunk of Azerbaijan’s petro dollars is invested. To add insult to injury, Turkey’s influence will be enhanced greatly in the region because Georgia has allowed Ankara to invest in its Ajarian province, almost to the extent of Turkifying the province, which is along Armenia’s trade route to the Black Sea. The Turkification process of Ajaria has been facilitated since the population there is already Muslim.

Returning to the domestic front, one salient change was the appointment of Vigen Sargsyan to the post of minister of defense. During his tenure as the president’s chief of staff, Sargsyan demonstrated that he has a solid grasp of modern statecraft. Little was known of his expertise in military matters. It turns out that during the dust-up with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s strategic losses were not due to a lack of bravery on the part of the Armenian military, but rather the military’s procurement department, whose budget had been diverted to the pockets of the military brass, rather than purchase bullets, fuel for tanks and weapons. Speculations are that the move to replace Ohanian, the longtime defense minister, was intended to remedy the situation.

The other significant change is the appointment of the current prime minister, Karen Karapetyan, who gave up a very lucrative position at Gazprom in Moscow to head the government in Yerevan. He is independently wealthy and has an intimate connection with the business world. He is an articulate, dynamic and no-nonsense technocrat. He has scared the hell out of government employees through his ruthless cuts through the ranks to run a slim and trim government apparatus.

It takes some courage and confidence to take the job in Armenia’s miserable current situation.

He has vowed to apply the rules uniformly, fight corruption and help the middle and small businesses which are suffering the most at the hands of tax collectors.

The reason Armenia has failed to develop a middle class and inspire some hope for the future has been the unscrupulous exploitation of tax laws, which have been wielded in a capricious manner and whose direct beneficiaries are individuals high up in the government.

The new prime minister has stepped into a very dangerous territory. He has asked for accountability from government officials about their illegal income. This may be the straw which could break the camel’s back. Either he will be thrown out of his office or the government employees will shape up, to the benefit of the public, as was done in neighboring Georgia.

Even the most ardent critics of the government have given the Stepanakert-born economist and businessman the benefit of the doubt because he radiates confidence.

He has extended his hand to the diaspora Armenians who thus far have zero confidence in the fair application of the laws in Armenia. Once he can contain the corruption, then Karapetyan can rely again on the diaspora.

While the prime minister has set the mood in a positive direction, the ruling Republican Party in the background has been trying to consolidate its position and perpetuate its rule in Armenia.

The Republican Party held its annual convention recently, which harkened back to the Soviet Party convocations with 1,700 delegates — no dissension, no discussion and no independent voices. The convention was harshly and correctly criticized for its content and style, none of which augurs well for the future.

In his speech, President Serzh Sargsyan himself admitted that one third of Armenia’s population was living under the poverty line. More than one million have left the country. In front of this debacle the only place for a ruling party should have been out of the government, not even more firmly entrenched. The president mentioned offhand that the philosophy of the party is inspired by Garegin Nejdeh. Nejdeh is indeed a historic figure. He saved the Sunik region in the south for Armenia and in his later years, he proselytized a tzeghagron or racialist philosophy, based on Nazi ideology, a concept anathema to today’s global society.

Another piece of theatrics was that 7,000 citizens overnight became members of the Republican Party, a practice inherited from the Soviet era. Now, those joining are doing so only for job security.

Party recruitment certainly aimed to pad the ranks for next year’s parliamentary elections, which will be held in May.

The president had ruled out his participation in politics at the end of his current term, but all indications point to the same game of tandem musical chairs in Armenia that is played in Russia, between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.

Indeed, the new constitution, which was railroaded at the last referendum, calls for the prime minister to assume power, leaving a ceremonial role for the president. The constitution also allows only party slates to participate in the parliamentary elections. Now that the Republican Party has a preeminent position on the political scene, there is no other party to challenge it and the new laws are open for Serzh Sargsyan to throw in his hat into the ring — again.

But this situation cannot continue. The current year’s jolts have led to a rude awakening. The next jolt could prove devastating.

Aliyev, once gain has announced that Armenia is faltering, emigration is rampant and that the Azeri army should wait to take over “our territories” peacefully.

This is a challenge to the global Armenian community to disprove Aliyev and bring back Armenia from the brink, shoring up on the domestic front and thus presenting a better chance for alliances.