The insouciant vibe in Armenia just a week after the official start of the presidential campaign is a stark contrast to the energy surrounding the 2008 election. The excitement displayed then by frequent rallies and gatherings of the Armenian National Congress pushed other parties, both pro-government and oppositional, to compete for the lion’s share of public attention.
None of that exists today. With Levon Ter-Petrossian’s retreat to his den, the Congress is on the verge of disintegrating and the president’s own rallies are staged. Two major parties in opposition have refused to field candidates. The hype isn’t there.
Several reasons for this exist. Firstly, Armenians do not believe they live in a democracy. They acknowledge the totalitarian tendencies of the ruling regime but do nothing to bring about reform. They accept the new requirement of receiving ID cards from the police department so they can receive salaries. They withstand having their children escorted by their teachers to the president’s campaign events while holding Republican Party flags in the middle of the school day. They comply when their department heads at state agencies demand they submit a list of 50-100 names of people who pledge they will vote for the president, or else be fired. They don’t dare to complain about absurdly low wages for fear of losing their jobs, and the opposition parties have no leverage to have the standards of living increased for most citizens. The ruling regime feels no pressure from within the country and externally, namely from the Armenian Diaspora, to revise its domestic policies. There is no system of checks and balances, nor is there a perceived need for them since it’s not discussed publically. Armenians lament the absence of justice, but they put forth no concrete demands for their government to reform the judicial system and make it resilient to external influence. The president promises the fairest election ever, but no one believes him. Some even think that the outcome has been prearranged in an agreement between Washington and Moscow.
Many citizens, especially those living in rural areas, look forward to election day as a way to make a quick $10 or $20 by selling their vote. They don’t care how the election turns out because they see the repressive system perpetuating. They feel no sense of empowerment, they don’t believe in the strength of their voice. The commonly spoken line keeps repeating: “What can you do? There it is.”
In the meantime, those who can will continue to leave. Decent-paying work opportunities are hard to come by, and the government does little to create new jobs. As the Weekly previously reported, a 2008 study by the International Labor Organization showed that 70 percent of families with one or more members working abroad received remittances from them, which are then used to pay for food and utilities (both of which have substantially increased since the report was released). People are struggling more than ever to get by.
Raffi Hovhannisian, one of the most respected Armenian politicians, who ironically is among the least taken seriously, is the president’s main contender. Known for his brutal honesty and strong will, he is perceived by some as the beaming icon of what should personify the ideal president. He is universally viewed among Armenian citizenry as “a nice guy who means well.”
But Hovhannisian is in it alone. None of the other parties have hinted at lending their support to his candidacy, which is unsurprising given his reputation for being unable to cooperate with virtually anyone. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how he would ever form a government. His Heritage Party’s embarrassing divorce from the Free Democrats after Hovhannisian made public his desire for their leader, Khachatur Kokobelian, to yield his parliamentary seat to young blood resulted in the loss of a broader support base.
If by divine providence Hovhannisian were to win, he would still have the omnipotent oligarchic system to contend with, and the “families” would likely be unwilling to serve him (unless he’s been secretly reaching out). He will have to campaign tremendously hard in the next few weeks to prove he is a serious alternative who can actually beat President Serge Sarkisian, something that will take a considerable amount of convincing. But his slogan, “It’s Possible,” is certainly optimistic.
Paruyr Hayrikian, the legendary dissident from the Soviet era, announced his candidacy on Jan. 7. He was quoted by RFE/RL as saying that there “will be no constitutional regime change in Armenia through these elections because unfortunately power…illegally and legally belongs to Serge Sarkisian and his associates subordinate to him.” [Note: Hayrikian was shot on Jan. 31 and is currently recovering]
In his Jan. 19 interview with RFE/RL, in response to whether he believed he had a rival, Sarkisian’s first words were, “I am inclined to believe that it is not the government’s problem to nurture a competitor.” No, only the incumbent’s.
Sarkisian doesn’t seem to understand how election campaigns really work. In the interview with RFE/RL, the president commented, “People become presidents with their teams, due to their track record, and not by criticizing the government.” This baffling statement implies he either simply doesn’t read international political news or he’s mocking anyone bothering to peruse his remarks. Then a recent video shows the president’s gruff indifference to the plight of struggling citizens at an Army Day commemorative event as a desperate woman approaches him in tears for an answer she can’t find.
The apathy surrounding these elections is shared by citizens and political forces alike. Neither the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF-D), Prosperous Armenia Party, or Armenian National Congress agreed to field candidates of their own, nor did they consider rallying around a single challenger, as a demonstration of no confidence in the fairness of the elections. The consensus was nothing more than a noble act of defeatism, a blatant affront to the democratic process. Lyudmila Sargsian of the Congress on Jan. 9 said that “Serge Sarkisian’s reelection is already predetermined. I think that it would be unserious of the [Armenian National Congress] to enter the fray.” In turn, head of the ARF-D parliamentary group Armen Rustamyan’s said, “I will definitely not vote for anybody… In all likelihood, I will write ‘against all’ on the ballot.”
Eligible voters can be divided into three categories: those who will vote for the authorities to protect their jobs and way of life; those who succumb to vote buying or are intimidated to vote a certain way; and those who vote of their own free will, ignoring pressure to vote for a particular candidate. Yet, nearly everyone I have ever spoken to has told me that the status quo will remain because nothing can ever be done to change the system of governance (although some tend to be cautiously optimistic). People live in fear—fear of losing their jobs and capital, and being oppressed.
It is not the Sarkisian Administration, or any other for that matter, that has been manipulating mindsets. Indifference and fatalism control the populace, and thereby obscure their belief in democracy. And they’re apprehensive of change.
As a fruit vendor working out of a small trailer in a courtyard near Sakharov Square told me the other day, “They say we’re living well now, although I don’t think I totally agree… But it could be a lot worse.”