Lately a spate of articles have appeared lamenting the general malaise that has engulfed Armenia. Should we feign surprise or should we be honest and acknowledge the why of it all? An objective appraisal of what may be properly referred to as a political miasma can be laid at the feet of the political leaders irrespective of party affiliation. Some of these leaders have been corrupted by power once it has been achieved; others—the political lackeys—function at the behest of those in power; and finally the political parties that seem to be in a quandary as to what should be done.
Against that backdrop the February 2013 presidential election has come and gone. According to the official results, President Serge Sarkisian with his fine-tuned Republican Party political machine handily won reelection with nearly 59 percent of the vote cast, thus avoiding a run-off. Candidate Raffi Hovannisian of the Heritage Party made an exemplary showing with nearly 37 percent of the vote. The usual irregularities were noted by the opposition and the usual obsequious foreign observers validated the election process.
If anything came out of this election it was the ascendance of Raffi Hovannisian as the nation’s principal opposition leader. He understood the challenges as well as the obstacles that faced his candidacy, but he offered no excuses and he accepted none. He was willing to mount the ramparts to wage the good fight on behalf of the Armenian people and the Armenian nation. His bravado served him well with a cynical electorate that was in need of a believable anti-incumbent. His “victory” should encourage the leaders of those political parties that seek to create a better Armenia to understand how important commitment and passion are in the eyes of the electorate. Unfortunately, parties that could have actively supported his candidacy on the campaign trail, failed to do so. Some of their followers obviously voted for Hovannisian, but their numbers might have been far greater if these parties had actively participated. Raffi Hovannisian’s popularity at this moment is at its highest level because of his bravura performance on the political stage. He is perceived, not as a typical politician, but as an individual imbued with the commitment and passion that are the sine qua non armor of the crusader who willingly takes on the Goliath of an entrenched administration that has failed to keep faith with the Armenian people.
Having said that, it is time for all concerned, especially those who sat out the election as well as Raffi Hovannisian, to put the election aside. Sarkisian has been reelected president of the Republic of Armenia, warts and all. Carping about what should have been, could have been, or might have been only adds to the apathy, disillusionment, and the resignation of the voters to a flawed system. As the pressure mounts on President Sarkisian, the political leaders of the concerned parties should speak as one (if that is possible) to force a civil dialogue that will lead to the necessary long-term reforms.
Granted, Hovannisian has every right to savor the success his candidacy has had in reshaping the political environment. However, his claim that the “Citizens of Armenia have spoken clearly today…” has yet to be determined. Let us keep in mind that 1 million Armenians did not vote in the presidential election. Was the alternative to President Sarkisian not sufficiently appealing to gain their support? Can it be said that the votes Hovannisian received were entirely in support of his candidacy or, in the alternative, were a sizable number of his votes in protest against the incumbent? Again, nearly 40 percent of the registered voters did not participate. Can either side claim that it has received a mandate from the electorate?
Young Armenian activists joined by concerned university students have been given an added impetus by Hovannisian’s candidacy. This is the time for Hovannisian to become the statesman that Armenia needs. To date, his speeches have been inspirational: “Today in the Ararat plain, in Noah’s world, surges a new flood, clear and clean, and—at the same time—powerful, historic, and forward looking. It comes to cleanse our country of all its impurities and lies.” He is visiting various parts of Armenia with his message of hope and change. Unfortunately, he is talking to people who have been offered hope and promised change too many times in the past only to be disillusioned. The inherent danger in offering hope and change, without some indication of the obstacles that must be overcome, is that the electorate may be led to expect more than can be delivered. The voters must be encouraged to understand the vital role they have in bringing about change.
Presently the Republican Party has a majority of 69 members in a 131-seat parliament. The Prosperous Party led by Gagik Tsarukian follows with 37 members. The Armenian National Party (7), Rule of Law Party (6), Armenian Revolutionary Federation (5), Hovannisian’s Heritage Party (5), and non-partisans (2) have the remaining 25 members. It should be noted that the next parliamentary election is in 2017. This distribution poses a serious challenge to longterm meaningful reform if the principal battlefield is parliament. But, if not there, where? In the streets? Rallies, demonstrations, strikes, work slow-downs, or stoppages cannot be sustained for an indefinite period without bringing the government to a standstill. These activities, while dramatically calling attention to issues, only exacerbates the onerous condition of the urban worker and his family. Our people have enough to contend with without adding these disruptive activities to their daily burden.
The Prosperous Party, having sat out the election, evidently has no iron in the fire concerning voting irregularities, but supports the right of the opposition to express its concerns. It places itself in a unique position by supporting the opposition without attacking the president’s legitimacy. How much better if Tsarukian used his influence to broker a meeting between a coalition of opposition leaders (including leaders of the young activists movement) with President Sarkisian and key members of his administration to discuss the alleged campaign and voting irregularities and the need for comprehensive systemic reforms. This suggestion may seem naïve, but a long drawn out attempt that may involve, according to Hovannisian, possible legal challenges to nullify or to unseat Sarkisian or a popular movement that feels denied, could easily lead to government paralysis or at best to a government beset with a continuing series of debilitating crises. There are any number of unintended consequences that could result that would benefit no one, least of all the Armenian people.
Another thought to consider is that Armenia does not exist in a vacuum. Foreign governments that may have very little interest in the welfare of the Armenian people or the country’s flawed political process do have an interest in what does take place in Armenia. Although it cannot be reduced to a simple yes or no response, any number of governments (Russia, Western Europe, Iran, and the United States) would prefer to see Sarkisian preside over the status quo without any disruptive opposition to contend with. Other governments (Turkey and Azerbaijan) can see the advantages associated with a chaotic or crisis-driven government in Yerevan. A politically destabilized political environment could well be fertile ground for the Turkish-Armenian protocols to be resurrected. It is a known objective of the United States government to have the protocols ratified. Would destabilization push Armenia further into the Russian sphere (joining a reoriented Georgia under Prime Minister Ivanishvili) away from a western orientation? And Artsakh? Would this be an opportune time for a resumption of hostilities by Azerbaijan? And would the promised changes for our brothers and sisters in Javakhk (Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region) fall by the wayside? How might relations between diasporan philanthropic and humanitarian organizations and Yerevan be affected?
This post-election period will surely be one of the most contentious as well as the most critical for the Armenian people and for Armenia. Hopefully, the electorate will not be witness to inter-party jockeying for status by political leaders or a failure by the opposition to stay on message. This is a pivotal moment that comes with no guarantees of success for the opposition. To place all the ills facing Armenia on Sarkisian may be politically expedient, but unfair. Political leaders of all the parties have been complicit, in one way or another, in greater or smaller measure in allowing conditions in Armenia to deteriorate since independence was declared in 1991. A systemic problem exists that must be addressed. This is the opportunity to begin that arduous process. The opposition, if it can remain unified, must have a plan that involves more than the appealing thought of changing the name on the door to the president’s office. Hopefully the forces for change can build on what Raffi Hovannisian describes as the “people’s victory.”