Armenia in Transition


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenia cannot entertain or exercise any political culture which is alien to the region, just as it cannot isolate itself from the corruption and cronyism which have defined the post-Soviet era.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev have been playing musical chairs in the Kremlin to perpetuate Mr. Putin’s rule well into the 2030s. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev changed to country’s constitution to perpetuate the Aliyev dynasty’s rule forever, with his wife Mehriban Aliyeva appointed as vice president to assure a smooth succession. In neighboring Turkey, the ruling AKP party succeeded in holding a referendum to consolidate the pedestal of Sultan Erdogan. Now, its Armenia’s turn to follow the trend.

President Serzh Sargsyan, after serving two terms, had his back against the wall. He could not even emulate the Russian model because he could not find a reliable partner to swap offices with and he feared falling into the trap he had designed himself for his predecessor. Former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, under whom Sargsyan served as prime minister, had believed that by ushering Sargsyan to the presidential palace, the throne would be waiting for him at the end of the presidential term.

It is part and parcel of the post-Soviet political culture to cling to power as long as possible by altering the government structure to skirt democratic principles.

Armenia held its referendum in a timely fashion to convert the system from presidential rule to parliamentary. Thus, political parties were empowered to elect the president, taking away the citizens’ right to speak. The name of the game is indirect democracy. There will certainly take place a power transfer from the office of the president to the prime minister, with the former mainly playing a ceremonial role.

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At the end of the long New Year holidays, Armenia entered the pre-election mode, although no visible political activity has been witnessed yet and the mood may continue since the political scenario remains so transparent.

It is anticipated that a new president will be elected by March 2 of this year and take office on May 9, at the end of President Sargsyan’s term.

It takes two-thirds votes (79) of the parliament to elect the president.

Which party can propose candidates for president? Certainly not the opposition Yelk (Exit) party of Nikol Pashinyan, because it cannot garner more than 9 votes. Gagik Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia party can command enough votes to come up with its own candidate, but it does not seem to be a possibility after that party’s internal shake-up. The ruling Republican Party, joined by coalition partner the ARF, can command a majority and it will exercise that power. Although the head of the parliamentary faction of the Republican Party Vahram Baghdassarian has feigned ignorance about any discussion to nominate the next presidential candidate, names have already been circulating which include Bako Sahakyan, the current president of Nagorno Karabakh, Arkady Ghukassyan, the former president of Karabakh, Gagik Harutyunyan, the president of the Supreme Court, and Edward Nalbandian, the current foreign minister.

Incidentally, many statesmen, after completing their apprenticeships in Karabakh, have moved to occupy positions of power in Armenia. The traffic has only been in one direction: Robert Kocharyan, Serzh Sargsyan, Arkady Ghukassyan, Alik Harutyunyan, Seyran Ohanian and others.

When once Levon Ter-Petrosian brought up this trend, he was accused of pitting Karabakh Armenians against the citizens of Armenia proper.

At this point, Gagik Harutyunyan is still needed in his position, which he has occupied since independence. He is a survivor, as he has ingratiated himself to all succeeding administrations by rubberstamping many controversial issues and legislations.

Nalbandian has the best chance because of his suave diplomacy and linguistic skills.

There is no room to guess who would be nominated to the position of prime minister because all those changes were made to perpetuate Mr. Sargsyan’s and his Republican Party’s rule. Therefore, on April 9, all he has to do is change his hat from president to continue to rule the country as prime minister. The only technicality remains for his party to nominate him for the position and to garner 50 percent of the votes. Technically, the president has to nominate the prime minister and he has the power to turn down the candidate selected by the parliament but in reality, that option is off the table. If the unforeseen happens, Mr. Sargsyan is savvy and experienced enough to have an alternative candidate up his sleeve who will not tip the cart.

Citizens in Armenia do not anticipate any changes in their daily lives, because the same leadership cannot offer anything other than what it has provided thus far. In anticipation of the forthcoming elections, Sargsyan has forewarned against price hikes. But in a cabinet meeting, he confided that the market fluctuations reflect world trends. However, before those trends cross Armenia’s borders, they are subject to the oligarchs’ monopolies, which can distort commodity prices.

Cosmetic changes have also been introduced in the tax code. The tax rate for the poor, receiving less than 175,000 drams a year has been reduced a few percentage points, which will be offset by the rise of commodity prices and rampant inflation (15 percent). And as the prices of food items climb, the salaries and pensions remain stationary to further strain family budgets.

Any citizen earning 175,000 drams a year or more will pay 2 percent more in taxes, which will further stifle the middle class. The middle class is the backbone of any society, and Armenia has yet to learn how to cultivate and enlarge this group.

It is almost embarrassing to find out that neighboring Georgia has been able to curtail corruption but Armenia cannot. Some cynics argue that Armenia has to run a parallel shadow economy to be able to pay the election bribes!

The president’s promise to increase the population to 4 million by 2040 has yet to be backed by an economic plan. With the pace of emigration and the death rate, Armenia has been experiencing a negative population growth. Perhaps the only other alternative remains to set up a number of fertility clinics to boost the population.

The diaspora certainly does not have a say in the forthcoming governmental structure change, although there is talk that the president needs to appeal to the diasporans, which until recently the government treated in a cavalier manner. Armenia’s perspective of Diasporan Armenians was shaped in the Soviet era and it continues to resist change. That policy is not limited to the current administration but refers to all successive leaders. They do not possess the wherewithal, perspective and mechanisms to work with organized structures; therefore they opt to enlist individuals of means who are more susceptible to be impressed by the glitter of medals. Or they wreak havoc by infiltrating parties to morally bribe some “hopefuls” among the leadership to play them against others. Even the ARF, which is a more disciplined party, has sustained some stress when the silence and cooperation of some party members in Armenia are bought.

Armenians outside the country may be considered to be more naïve and romantic for refusing to accept the current reality, wishing a more prosperous future for the people in Armenia, trying to halt emigration, raising the economic standards of living, etc.

We hope against hope that the transition would bring radical change in Armenia and its relations with the diaspora.

It is not mutually exclusive to love Armenia and to point out some of its disastrous trends.



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