YEREVAN, Armenia—Armenian Weekly Assistant Editor Nanore Barsoumian sat down with Civilitas Foundation Director Salpi Ghazarian in Yerevan before the parliamentary elections. One of the aims of Civilitas is to promote the development of democracy in Armenia through initiatives that support education, rural development, and environmental awareness. Civilitas has been following the election campaign closely, and has conducted a series of polls throughout the country. Leading up to the elections, the foundation also hosted a series of debates and interviews.
Nanore Barsoumian—Talking to people on the street, I’m hearing many express their lack of faith in the election process. They don’t think their votes will really matter. What has Civilitas found through its polls? Is anything moving voters? Are politicians really appealing to voters?
Salpi Ghazarian—There are two fundamental things that have worked to turn off Armenia’s electorate from the electoral processes: One is the actors themselves, and the other is the absence of accountability by the actors. What people will tell you is that (a) I don’t believe the process will necessarily reflect my choice and my vote, and (b) even if it does, there has not been accountability for what any of the potential candidates have done, and so I don’t have hope that what will come will be any better. There’s a lack of accountability, which leads to a lack of hope and, therefore, lack of commitment to the electoral process. At the same time, there has been a palpable conviction that the elections that came before did not truly reflect the people’s voice. That combination has led to incredible apathy. The voting is not done either with conviction or hope, or with a rational sense of ‘There’s been accountability.’ Neither exists, neither the hope, nor the rational expectation. They’re dismissive.
N.B.—How deep are party loyalties among voters?
S.G.—They’re not—not among the voters and not among the leadership. The question is off. You know why? This is basically the same party. If you look at 1991 and all those who were in power then, they basically split off and formed a bunch of parties. They move within them, again, because the parties are not ideological. Except for the ARF, which has a clear domestic policy.
N.B.— Many potential voters list joblessness as a number one issue. Have politicians been able to convince people that they’re going to change that? Is unemployment also their number one issue?
S.G.—I think that the politicians and the public really are talking about the same two fundamental areas. One is the economy: jobs, decent wages. The other is a sense of justice. Those are the two key areas. And those are the two key areas that people will tell you about, and the politicians talk about. Whether they do them in any sort of convincing, thought-through, strategic, ideological way that convinces me that this party can get there—that’s something else. The desperation and disappointment is so deep, that it’s not as if there is dialogue on the processes and the approaches and the ideologies that are different. There is an effort to convince the public that ‘Yes, you can trust me.’ It’s really at that emotional level. It’s not strategic. It’s not ideological.
N.B.—When you talk about justice, do you mean the judicial system, or do you mean justice in general, like the system is unfair.
S.G.—Well, it’s all the same, isn’t it? Yes, the system as it has evolved is characterized as unfair. People feel, and they will tell you that all they want is a just system, where they have equal access, equal opportunity, and equal rights; where they’re treated the same way as somebody’s son. Of course, that’s something that’s in the air—a general attitude of inequality, of the rulers and the ruled. However, the continuation of that is that if I feel I’ve been wronged, because of that general environment of impunity and different rights for different people, then I should have recourse through the judicial system, which I don’t; or, if I do, I don’t believe that I do. It’s a combination.
N.B.— There are rumors that a deal was made between the Republican Party and Heritage Party. There’s also talk of a new coalition forming with Prosperous and others. What do you make of these potential new partnerships?
S.G.—Maybe there is an agreement between the Heritage Party and the Republicans. And if so, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Politics is about deals. The question is how much do you give and how much do you get. If you vote for Heritage, you vote for Heritage based on either hope that they will bring more change, or because you’ve liked what they’ve done up to now. For one or the other reason you will vote for them. Now, if there is in fact a deal of some sort with the Republicans, it depends on how that deal plays out. If that deal plays out so that Heritage can continue to voice issues and have a bigger platform, maybe that’s a good thing. If that means Heritage will cease to be critical of certain people and certain actions, that’s a bad thing. But that’s something that people are going to be able to judge. The deal in and of itself is not a bad thing. Politics is about deals, it’s not about revolution. It’s not about calling for people’s blood. That’s not politics. Georgia had its revolution, and now that Saakashvili can’t run again, every sort of manipulation is taking place to see what they can do to keep the ruling party in power. We will now see if there was a democratic revolution. So, was there a deal? Perhaps. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. Could it be a bad thing? It could be.
We’re not accustomed to making nuanced deals here, because the deals aren’t over ideology but over power. That’s what Prosperous has been saying, right? Prosperous has been saying, the point of these elections is to be able to break the monopoly of one party, so that every issue will have to be based on deals; so that everyone will have to take other opinions into consideration. Coalitions are normal things—if they’re real coalitions, based on give and take over programs and ideologies.
N.B.—Do you think the 30,000 or so observers—spread over the 2,000 or so voting stations—will actually make a difference? Will it translate to less vote rigging, and more transparency?
S.G.—Observers can make us more aware. So what does impact mean? Does it make people more aware of the need to be accurate, and transparent? Sure. Does it necessarily change the outcome? Not necessarily. There are observers, and there are observers. The OSCE observers are the ones who are mandated to issue a statement at the end that constitutes Europe’s assessment of the validity of the elections. What they say will impact public opinion. It has no impact on the election itself. You screw up, you screw up. They can say, you screwed up a lot, a little, better, less, more, a lot but not enough to affect the outcome, a lot to affect the outcome. They can say all sorts of things. They choose their words very carefully, because they know that their words have a huge impact on public opinion; and depending on public opinion, the public will decide whether they will—on the 7th—accept the results that are announced, or whether they go out on the street. Will they go out on the street for two days, and scream because it feels good, or will they go out on the street for two months, until what? Do they want an “until…”? So, does it [have an impact]? Yes, kind of, but not really, but yes, kind of.
Look, who is Vartoush Mayrig going to vote for, if not the current gyughapet’s party? Go for authority, right? Who votes for the Greens in the U.S.? You go for the Democrats or the Republicans, because you don’t want to throw away your vote. All of those factors are still factors here. It’s just that because the process is neither transparent nor responsive, people don’t know what to believe. So there, I further confused you and haven’t answered your question. But really, that’s how it is.
N.B.—Another recent development is that the Prosperous Party, the Armenian National Congress, and the ARF have demanded that the list of voters be made public.
S.G.—What they’re asking is that the list of those who actually vote be made public [the day after elections], which then allows you to see how my dead grandmother voted. Clearly this has been a problem. It allows you to compare and cross-validate [the list of registered voters with the actual list of voters]. So there is less room to manipulate.
N.B.—Then there is the issue of bribery that’s been coming up. For instance, according to one report, Nikol Pashinyan accused his opponent of hosting graduation parties free of charge at his restaurant, for students and parents. You can say that he’s being a good guy, that he’s being charitable. Or you can say that he’s trying to bribe them.
S.G.—Is that a bribe? Or is it the expected ‘pork’–something all politicians in office dole out to gain favor? Is that using your resources to convince voters of your real and potential power? Where do you draw the line? Sometimes it is crude, obvious, and in your face. Other times, it is nuanced and not so obvious. Then there’s outright saying, ‘Look, you guys all know that the Hanrabedagans [Republicans] are going to come into our village and put in a water distribution system. Now, we don’t want them not to get elected, right?” What do you do? Is that a bribe? Is it blackmail? Is it simple pressure? People complain that the Prosperous Armenia Party gives out potatoes and other kinds of help. Well, Republicans pass out principals positions. Is that a bribe, or is that job security because the party’s in office? Is that the only thing driving the election process? Perhaps it is, as opposed to other places where 10 things drive the election process. At the end of the day, do they deliver what they promised, or was it a onetime ‘gift’? And, to continue on that theme, somebody must be taking that money, right? It’s not just the giving it; it’s the taking it. You took the money, so what are you complaining about? It’s very complicated.
N.B.—What about the issue of businessmen in politics? That’s another issue that has been coming up, about how many businessmen have been on the Republican list in the majoritarian constituencies. Is that a problem?
S.G.—Do you know how many millionaires are in the U.S. Congress? Forty-six percent. The point is, the world over, that is what happens with business and politics, because attaining power is an expensive process. The problem in Armenia is that the political field is still small, and directly interdependent with the business world. The justice system is not egalitarian and so the more powerful have greater access. And the media doesn’t work as it should. There’s no fair, independent, reliable oversight. It’s a power game among the elite as opposed to competition amongst ideologies, strategies, programs. To be fair, there are a lot of really interesting people on the list this time, especially in the majoritarian seats. There are interesting independent women. Do they stand a chance? I don’t know.
N.B.—What names pop up? What are some of the fresh faces running this time?
S.G.—Satig Seyranyan: She’s the editor of a newspaper ‘168 Jam’ [168 hours]. She’s a new face. Vladimir Karapetyan is running as an independent. He’s with the ANC. There are interesting new young faces.
N.B.—That’s encouraging. I’m increasingly seeing more civil society movements emerge—whether it’s the environmental movement, or the one for women’s rights. They are activists, but I’m not really aware of them being part of any political parties, or entering into politics. They truly care about things, but I’m not hearing them talking about politics, or getting into politics. Why do you think that is?
S.G.—They’re proud that they’re not, because politics has become such a dirty word. They’re proud that they’re not playing a dirty game. They’re proud that they’re neither manipulating, nor being manipulated. They are very afraid of being manipulated and co-opted. Having said that, I think that strategically they are going to have to get politically active. It’s an opportunity for them to increase their base of support, and it’s an opportunity for them to hold actual political actors accountable.
N.B.—No one’s tapping into them? I mean, for politicians too, that is a lot of active, caring, passionate people.
S.G.—It’s on both sides. They are very, very hesitant about cooperating [with politicians]. And the parties have not reached out to them the right way. For both directions it’s a problem. It’s a wasted resource. It’s a wasted opportunity, especially at this point in time.