EU Forum

Social Europe

Armenia: from one election to another

08 May 2013 - 00:00

The latest Presidential elections in Armenia came to demonstrate the country’s democratic deficit at large while also revealing more specific drawbacks. In the first place, they underscored the divisive lines across the country’s political spectrum: between government and opposition, within the opposition, between opposition parties and their constituency and between the government and the citizens in general. They also brought to the fore an alarming shift of democratic accountability: the reforms undertaken by the government fulfill only pro forma EU requirements but in essence do little to serve the citizens. Overcoming the current political impasse will require bold actions on the part of all sides involved. If they are to restore their credibility and outweigh the incumbent leadership, political parties in the opposition camp will need to patch up their differences and act more coherently. Meanwhile, the ruling elite has another chance to prove its commitment to European integration and democratisation agenda by pushing true reform as opposed to imitation of such. 


Against all expectations, the February Presidential elections in Armenia brought forward a number of surprises. One of them was that major opposition political parties - antagonised to a various degree to the governing party - didn’t field candidates, claiming that the ballot would be fixed. This effectively eliminated the competition element in the election, while the fact that neither of these parties supported any candidate not of their own underscored the deep rift within the opposition camp.

The second surprise was that, contrary to expectations of widespread political apathy among Armenian voters, some 60% did go to the ballot box. The official results gave a 58% victory to the incumbent president and head of Republican Party of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, but 37% of the votes went to opposition candidate and Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovhannisyan. This signaled that a considerable part of society didn’t approve of the current policies and voted for a change.

International election monitoring missions observed that the elections, albeit having some drawbacks, were generally well administered. Many, including the EU and the US, promptly extended congratulations to the president. This granted a degree of legitimacy to Sargsyan and signaled that, in the eyes of the international community, Armenia ‘passed the test’. As is always the case, a considerable part of the Armenian voters found themselves starkly disagreeing with this. Hovhannisyan himself refused to recognise the official results, claiming a victory, and has since led rallies in the capital and some other cities. These are, however, symptoms of broader trends unfolding in Armenian politics.

A tradition of political confrontation

It is widely agreed that, beginning in 1996, all elections in Armenia have been marred by widespread violations that arguably affected final results. The usually easily predicted outcome of elections in Armenia has generated a deeply rooted belief among the Armenian public at large that elections per se cannot possibly result in a change of power. Still, elections or, more precisely, their results have always been a powerful catalyst for new waves of political protests. In most cases public protests denouncing election results followed. These would normally lead to political crises, each one deepening the government-society divide even further. Ranging in their scale and scope, and each time with a new opposition force at the forefront, none of these movements have so far been able to oust power.

Over the last decade, the Armenian political spectrum has been fragmented in many ways. The deep rift between government and opposition and the uneven access to power has virtually left the opposition with little, if any, leverage to affect any policy issues in the country. Dialogue and attempts at agreement based on mutual concessions have not been very successful in the past.

In addition, forces within the opposition camp remain far from united and have lately appeared to be working against each other rather than against the ruling elite or for a particular objective. Mutual distrust among them is arguably fuelled by an underlying inter-party competition to lead the opposition front in Armenia. The latter is likely to stir yet another rift - one between opposition parties and the opposition-minded segments of society who have in the past often found themselves disappointed in their leaders.

The biggest divide, however, remains between those actually in power and the people. The country’s incumbent leadership, dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia, came to power in times of violent political crisis back in 2008 and has since been haunted by legitimacy deficit, even more so after gaining a sweeping majority in the Parliamentary elections last year. On top of this, the government is trapped in the imperative to tackle a daunting set of challenges the country faces: high rates of poverty, unemployment and migration remain the most immediate and painful ones.

While promises were made to bring about positive changes in the country by fighting corruption, carrying out much needed reforms and curbing the power of the oligarchs, these have not been seen in practice. Rather, excuses have been sought for lack of action, as the country’s officials often adduce Armenia’s ‘post-Sovietness’ and the closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey (because of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh) as ‘objective factors’ impeding Armenia’s transition and maintain that time is needed to change this.

There are serious doubts whether the government would at all be able to embark upon successful reforms, given these malaises are well-entrenched within the highest echelons of state institutions, something Serzh Sargsyan has himself acknowledged lately, and the interests of oligarchs and the ruling elite are coalesced.

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Dangerous shift in accountability

An evolutionary and reformist change in Armenia, as opposed to more revolutionary type of change similar to that in Georgia, appears also to be supported by Armenia’s western partners, primarily the EU. Brussels is keen on demonstrating ‘strategic patience’, as the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, coined it, towards the eastern partners in their efforts to carry out complex reforms.

The EU has been providing institutional support to Armenia in a bid to facilitate reforms and eventually make possible the signing of an EU-Armenia Association Agreement. The Agreement will be hopefully initialed at the Eastern Partnership’s Vilnius Summit in November of this year. However, rather than facilitating a genuine democracy, the EU-sponsored reforms have been implemented rather superficially and have only contributed to a sort of democratic façade in Armenia.

Over the last few years, in an attempt to address its over-reliance in both economic and political terms on its traditional ally Russia, Armenia committed to an ambitious European integration agenda. This came much to Moscow’s dismay and against the backdrop of the latter’s attempt to drag Yerevan into its vague Eurasian architecture projects, economically irrelevant for Armenia. On the one hand, Yerevan’s drive towards closer EU ties has opened prospects that, with even more EU support, the country can switch to a faster track of democratisation and development. On the other hand, however, the EU’s scope of action might now be even more limited in demanding deeper and faster reform from Armenia, as Brussels might fear alienating Yerevan and pushing it back to Moscow’s agenda. In a sense, Armenia’s democratisation is falling victim to geostrategic considerations.

This tacit understanding by both sides has driven the Armenian leadership into the comfortable zone of acting as democrat and reformist more than actually being one. The ‘strategic patience’ has also developed a misguided practice whereby the government makes promises not so much to its citizens and the constituency but to the EU and other international partners. Consequently, the soft language of international ‘progress reports’ often acts as a legitimising factor in places where the government has not met the expectations of its own citizens and has, therefore, failed. The tendency to seek legitimacy abroad - be it in Brussels or in Moscow - rather than at home has created a dangerous accountability shift and a sound mistrust in the Armenian society towards the country’s international partners.

What next?

Overcoming Armenia’s democratic deficit and building bridges across the political landscape will inevitably require self-sacrifice and bold actions on the part of all sides involved.

In this process, parties in the opposition front are not any less challenged than the government. Restoring trust in the institution of the opposition as such, as well as achieving a wider political consolidation and delivering more immediate results remains important. In light of this, the early-May municipal elections in the capital Yerevan, reportedly marred with violations again, turned out to be yet another missed opportunity for the opposition parties as they failed to pool forces and form a united front at the elections. But if they are to record some victory and have a greater input into shaping the political agenda in the country, the opposition parties will have to line up and cooperate in some format, rather than remain divided as they are.

Regardless of what the opposition does next, the government should feel significantly challenged. With at least 37% of the population unhappy with the current policies, and with poverty, unemployment and migration issues at the forefront, there is a need for true policy cures. Rather than engaging in imitation of reforms, the government could embark upon a genuine reform agenda, also envisaged by the country’s European integration strategy. Building confidence could well start with curbing the monopolies and reviving the lost sense of justice in the country. Whilst such bold actions on the part of the ruling leadership would ostensibly mean cutting the branch on which they are sitting and curbing their own power, in fact this would be rewarding for the government in both the short and long term.

Finally, the foul process of seeking legitimacy and support abroad on the part of either the government or the opposition parties should end. For true democracy to prevail, democratic accountability should be brought back to where it belongs. The prerogative to grant it belongs to the citizens of Armenia.

Inevitably, democratisation is also the only long-term means of securing Armenia’s strategic interests in the region and elsewhere. With little natural resources and restrains in its transit capacity, conscious investment in democratisation would unlock the country’s full potential and endow Armenia with a special role in the regional architecture and beyond. Democratisation and economic liberalisation would equip the country with the necessary clout to push forward its strategic interests more assertively. They also remain the best counter-strategy to ‘post-Sovietness’ and the blocked borders.