Voting for Consolidation of Oligarchy or Democracy?


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The political landscape is changing dramatically in Armenia. As the election deadline looms, activities are intensified. One of the major reasons is the new shape the government will take when the system changes from presidential to parliamentary. Citizens are neither briefed nor educated sufficiently to understand why the new system may impact their lives in a positive way versus the current one. All they know is the role model of Russia before them and they believe the leadership in Armenia is emulating Master Putin’s political wizardry in their country.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin carefully planned his comeback and the perpetuation of his rule, while bypassing the provisions of the Russian constitution. He allowed Dmitri Medvedev to run the presidency for one term to usher him back to that office during the next term.

Armenia adopted a new constitution exactly for that kind of political longevity for its current ruler. Before the change, when his second term expired, President Serzh Sargsyan could not seek a third term. But the new constitution paves the way for a comeback, because the executive power is transferred from the office of the president to the office of the prime minister. Lo and behold, Mr. Sargsyan can run for prime minister. Or his Republican Party, which is projected to hold the majority of seats in the new parliament, will elect him to the office. Then the new president will only exercise a ceremonial role.

No one is taking stock to find out how successful the Republican Party was to justify the extension of its rule for the foreseeable future; the economy continued suffering, the most crucial issue of the country, its depopulation, was not resolved and on top of all these, Armenia’s security was compromised during last year’s confrontation with Azerbaijan. With all these failures on the domestic front, Armenia’s foreign policy led the country to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), partnering with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The leaders of the last two partners have no respect towards their junior partner and they have trampled its rights and interests with impunity. Belarus and Kazakhstan have full economic cooperation with Armenia’s enemy, Azerbaijan, which is not even a member of the EEU. They both support the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity versus the right of Karabagh for self-determination.

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev even refused to attend the organization’s session in Yerevan, yet he is paying a second visit to Baku in the last six months.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who is an international pariah, recently visited Azerbaijan to endorse that country’s claim over Karabagh. Not only that, but he is about to hand over Israeli blogger Alexander Lupshin to Azerbaijan, after the latter country sought his arrest for visiting Karabakh and criticizing Azerbaijan. And these are supposed to be Armenia’s allies.

Of course, Armenia’s clout and standing in the world political map has something to do with this sorry situation, but also its leadership’s weaknesses have come to play a role as well.

Now Armenia is poised to embrace this same leadership as a result of the outcome of the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

The new constitution has shrunk the number of members of parliament from 131 to 101. The parliament will be empowered to elect the prime minster and certainly the majority party will prevail.

The electoral system no longer allows individual candidates to run for election; they need to be on the ticket of a party or an alliance. That is why at this time some intensive horse-trading is in progress to form partnerships and alliances. The real and uncompromising opposition is in jails; therefore it is incumbent upon the authorities to concoct opposition groups so that the election will appear genuine.

The ruling Republican Party has done its due diligence to garner 60 percent of the votes in the upcoming elections to be able to call the shots.

There are two varieties of opposition groups: one group believes that the authorities have robbed the country enough and it is now their turn to continue the pillage. This sort of opposition can be bought during or even before the elections. The other variety hopes genuinely that by participating in the democratic process, some positive steps can be achieved.

The Republican Party is ready for the elections; during the last party convocation, 7,000 members joined the party overnight, to protect their bread and butter, as the government employs them. Incidentally, joining the party is as easy as dropping out, as proven in the case of recent major defectors.

Over and above the membership drive, all schools, universities, state institutions, regional governors are on notice that their well-being and future are based on the number of voters they can bring to the polls.

Under this system, the Republican Party will not even need to buy votes. Also, any monitoring group will verify the results meet international standards.

Outside the government camp there is a mosaic of several groups eager to win the leftover seats in the parliament.

The most powerful alliance is headed by Gagik Zaroukyan, head of the Prosperous Armenia Party. Early on, the party was in a coalition with the Republican Party. As Prosperous Armenia began commanding more popularity, it shifted its course and headed towards the opposition, alarming the Sargsyan administration. The political discourse in Armenia is not very civil. Actually, it can be deadly. Zaroukyan was invited to the center of power to face an irate president who warned him in no uncertain terms to quit politics or else face the consequences. There was no need of a reminder. A precedent is all too familiar, that of Khachadour Soukiasyan, a successful businessman and a highly educated economist who was stripped of his mandate as an MP, his assets seized and a persecution launched. Having in mind that precedent, Zaroukyan quietly left the political scene. Now he is back in the rink, and for a short time, with Mr. Soukiasyan at his side, in his coalition. (The latter has since dropped out again, demonstrating how fragile and unstable the coalitions are.) Certainly a deal has been worked out with the ruling party and red lines must have been drawn, although publically the president announced that he has not greeted Mr. Zaroukyan’s return to politics with any particular joy.

There are four parties and one “movement,” which have joined the Zaroukyan alliance. Among the parties involved are two traditional political parties, the Hunchakyan and Ramgavar (ADL) as the alliance is interested in involving diasporan forces in the process. In fact, this time around, the diaspora is a silent partner in the elections without any voters, as all the groups have demonstrated particular interest in that front.

There are more than 500,000 immigrants from Armenia in California. It can safely be assumed that 95 percent of these expats are dead-set against the regime. On the contrary, Zaroukyan enjoys popularity because of his generous contributions to many charitable causes and especially his sponsoring of the Olympic team in Armenia, which has brought in several medals.

It is the hallmark of most oligarchs to rob the country, amass assets and move their assets overseas, because hey have no confidence in the system which they have created.

Zaroukyan and Soukiasyan deserve some credit for the fact that they are still in Armenia, and they employ thousands of people and pay taxes.

Another celebrity-studded alliance is headed by Vartan Oskanian and Seyran Ohanyan, former foreign minister and defense minister, respectively, who are joined by Victor Dallakyan.

While the goal of this alliance is regime change — and they are very vocal on that score — the public is skeptical of their honesty and motives and they raise a legitimate question: You have cooperated with the current regime for a long time and on positions of power, if you intended to achieve something, why didn’t you act then?

Another alliance is headed by Nikol Pashinyan, a former prominent member (and defector) of the Armenian National Congress. For a long time, he has served as Levon Ter-Petrosian’s attack dog, both in political rallies and the media. He has a reputation of dropping the political discourse in the gutter. His alliance is called Yelk (egress). He is joined by Edmond Maroukyan and former Prime Minister Aram Z. Sargsyan, brother of the assassinated Prime Minister Vazken Sargsyan.

Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress has lost its former luster and power by defections. The first president continues to head the political movement and with a few wise maneuvers, he can garner 5 percent of the votes, with the tacit goodwill of the current administration.

Raffi Hovannisian at one time was the hope for the youth. The modern organization of his Heritage Party inspired young voters that he was capable of introducing western values and practices in Armenia’s political system. At this time, the party is in disarray.

The ARF (Dashnag) Party is going it alone. Traditionally the party has been able to elect five to six members to the parliament. But during the recent negotiations, the party has held its expectations too high, asking for 11 seats. The reason the party has decided to go it alone was the loss of popularity in joining into a coalition with the ruling party, which also angered party groups in different countries.

But still the party is in tandem with the ruling party and has sold the government a bill of goods, assuring them it can deliver the diaspora.

The leaders of the Republican Party will experience a rude awakening because of new developments in the diaspora. Indeed, Oskanian’s coalition has a firm grip through the Civilnet of Celebrity Diplomacy. Recently that movement held a well-publicized symposium at the University of Southern California (USC). Among the featured speakers were Atom Egoyan, Arsinée Khanjian, Serj Tankian, Eric Nazarian and Vahe Berberian, who propose to monitor the elections and after that, to participate in the democratization of the country, within the parameters of an interested party. They are not only celebrities in their own particular fields, but they are well versed in Armenia’s politics. Their actions in a way marginalized the existing power structure in the diaspora.

As we can see, there is quite a colorful political panorama, which promises change in Armenia’s plight.

The elections will demonstrate whether the country will consolidate the oligarchy or pick democracy. All one can expect is to see that change in a positive way.