The U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks provide invaluable information and insight on how American diplomats assess the inner workings of Armenia’s politics in general, and key players like Raffi Hovannisian in particular. As embassy officials grappled to absorb the day-to-day politics of the country, time and again they voiced their agreement with Hovannisian’s assessment of the political landscape in the country. They often judged him—the leader of the often sole opposition faction in parliament—to be a politician of a different breed, the exception among the “traditional” opposition politicians. However, they generally frowned upon his foreign policy views, which they attributed to his diaspora background.
Hovannisian is a product of the West, in that his democratic reform-oriented politics aspire to create an Armenia governed by the rule of law, divorced from a “Russia-centered” foreign policy. The cables reveal that Hovannisian repeatedly urged U.S. diplomats to balance their geopolitical objectives with support for democratic reforms. And so in 2005, Hovannisian joined forces with two other opposition figures—Aram Sargsyan and Hovhannes Hovhannisian—to create a “Western-leaning” union that would replace President Robert Kocharian’s government. Then-U.S. Ambassador John Evans informed Washington of these developments, under the subhead, “Three (Somewhat) Big Fish Join Forces.” Evans wrote that the alliance could be “viable” if managed right, though he doubted that it could pose a real threat to Kocharian’s regime. Evans added, “Given Raffi Hovannisian’s track record of joining and then departing coalitions,” it was yet to be seen if he would be the “poster child” of the new alliance. Perhaps it was this move of Hovannisian’s that raised suspicions among some—including members of the ruling Republican Party—that Hovannisian could be an agent of the West. In one cable, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Joseph Pennington wrote that a member of the Republican Party’s top executive council Samvel Nikoyan “shared his (completely mistaken) belief that Heritage Party leader and former AmCit [American citizen] Raffi Hovhannissian takes political instructions from the U.S. Government.” Less than a year later, Evans wrote of a “weakened” and “demoralized” opposition.
Harassment and blacklisting
Hovannisian has had a difficult task at hand, struggling to make his torch visible in a political environment that muffles voices of dissent. In 2006, Heritage Party officials notified the U.S. Embassy that the party was being subjected to harassment. In a confidential cable dated Aug. 8, 2006, Evans said his office did not rule out that President Kocharian was behind the attacks on opposition parties. Heritage Party members alleged the harassment began after Hovannisian publicly and harshly criticized Kocharian at a rally in November 2005. Referring to a letter Hovannisian had addressed to Kocharian, which included 21 “pointed” questions, Evans wrote, “Hovannisian was emboldened in his perceived mandate after he learned that, according to the results of a May 2006 Gallup poll…he was the most popular Armenian politician, with an approval rating of 74 percent.”
In a separate cable, Evans relayed how, according to media representatives, the president’s office had circulated a blacklist of politicians—including Hovannisian—who could not appear on television shows. U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Anthony Godfrey confirmed the claim in a subsequent cable, and raised concerns about the fairness of the upcoming 2007 parliamentary elections. By March 2007, ahead of the said elections, the situation had improved, according to Godfrey, and opposition figures like Hovannisian had begun to appear on TV in interviews.
The 2007 elections
Once again, Raffi Hovannisian was enjoying “high favorability ratings” in U.S. funded polls, wrote Godfrey on May 4, 2007, in a cable discussing the upcoming May 12 parliamentary elections. Godfrey however, doubted Hovannisian’s electability. “[He] may be seen as too much of a ‘nice guy’ for Armenian voters to believe he could succeed in the shark-filled political waters,” wrote Godfrey, adding, “[He] also has practically no organizational base or natural constituency, although his American-style campaign methods look as professional as any in the race.” In a separate cable, Godfrey highlighted instances of intimidation employed by the authorities to scare off potential Hovannisian supporters, as witnessed by OSCE observers.
Despite having secured only six percent of the vote, and gaining seven parliamentary seats, Rudolf V. Perina, the U.S. chargé d’affaires ad interim, believed Hovannisian’s campaign was a success. The title of his cable said it all: “Survey Shows Heritage Party the Big Winner of the May 12 Elections.” Perina was referring to a USAID-funded poll that had determined that “Raffi Hovannisian and his Heritage party gained the greatest increase in recognition and popularity following the May 12 Armenian Parliamentary elections… No party came close to achieving such an increase in both recognition and favorability,” wrote Perina. “The poll revealed that at 29 percent, the Heritage Party has the lowest unfavorability (negative opinion) rating in the country.” What was more interesting, the poll found that in a hypothetical presidential race that included then-Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian and Hovannisian, the two would outpoll all other candidates. Furthermore, the highest number of respondents—36 percent—said they would vote for Hovannisian, compared to 30 percent for Sarkisian. Perina thought Hovannisian’s pre-election campaign was “brilliant,” that he was successful in converting his high favorability ratings into ballots cast, and that his party “proved itself,” meaning that more voters would feel confident to support him in the future.
Setting himself apart
In a subsequent cable dated Aug. 24, 2007, Perina reported that Hovannisian had changed his campaign tactics leading up to the Aug. 26 race in District 15 for a majoritarian parliamentary seat. Instead of driving around in a colorful bus—U.S.-style—Hovannisian was now campaigning door-to-door. “[He] has been seen speaking to farmers in fields and helping women carry water from wells,” wrote Perina. “Hovannisian is in the race to build on his and his party’s burgeoning popularity and, in his own words, ‘to reclaim step-by-step, day-by-day, those votes stolen from us.’ It will be interesting to see if the Heritage Party chairman’s strategy of bringing his national following to this small backwater of rural Armenia helps boost his presidential aspirations.”
Perina attributed the “failures” of “traditional” opposition figures in Armenia to their desire to “mobilize the elite.” The U.S. diplomat saw one exception: “There seems to be only one politician in Armenia who can grasp the importance of reaching out directly to the voters themselves, and that is the American-born-and-bred Raffi Hovannisian, who also seems to us the clear public-opinion winner of the May [2007 parliamentary] election.” Perina saw Hovannisian as former President Levon Ter Petrosian’s “most credible rival” in leading the opposition. “Hovannisian now seems the biggest ‘X’ factor in the presidential race. If he is able to run, he might have a real shot,” Perina wrote. However, as both Ter Petrosian and Kocharian had denied Hovannisian Armenian citizenship, the latter only became a citizen in 2001, after Kocharian yielded; as presidential candidates are required to have been a citizen of Armenia for at least 10 years, this meant Hovannisian could not run for the highest office until 2011.
Hovannisian was untraditional both in building a support base and in his exchanges with foreign diplomats, traits that often set him apart from his political rivals. Reporting on meetings between Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza and various opposition figures in August 2007, Perina dwelled on Bryza’s exchange with Hovannisian. “In sharp contrast to most oppositionists meeting U.S. officials, Hovannisian wanted to talk not just about party politics, but also about a wide range of foreign policy issues. He highlighted Turkey…and commented that the most important ingredient to success in negotiations with either Turkey or Azerbaijan would be to have a president and a government with unquestionable democratic legitimacy, which he felt no Armenian government has had since the early years of President Levon Ter Petrosian. He felt that Armenian leaders with real popular legitimacy would have much greater standing to negotiate tough issues, including staking out a more independent position from Russia. Hovannisian thought Armenia should naturally align with the Euro-Atlantic community, and break the ‘vertical power’ of the Russia-Armenia relationship. He felt that Russia had already been given far too many Armenian assets, and that this would be a burden on future governments for years to come.”
Not all of Hovannisian’s political maneuvers were perceived favorably by U.S. diplomats. In fact, often—or as often as he discussed foreign policy—his approach was deemed to counter U.S. or western-supported objectives. For instance, Hovannisian introduced a bill in parliament calling for the recognition of Nagorno-Karabagh. “The move has little chance of being enacted or signed by the president, but makes for clever politics. The populist ploy will put the government and ruling party in the position of having to block an initiative that would be very popular among average Armenians, if enacted,” wrote Perina, adding, “Of course, the move is extremely unhelpful from the perspective of Minsk Group negotiations and efforts to resolve the conflict.”
When Turkey and Russia upped their attempts to broker peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch sent a cable, dated Nov. 17, 2008, with an overview of official and public perceptions in Armenia. In it, she spotlighted Hovannisian’s position: “[He] highlighted ‘genocide’ recognition as a high priority, and hinted at a view we have detected elsewhere that Armenia should make no decisive moves on Turkey or NK until the next U.S. Administration takes office.” Hovannisian along with many others hoped that the Obama Administration would “open a new century” in U.S.-Armenia relations, beginning with recognition of the Armenian Genocide to a change in the U.S. position on Nagorno-Karabagh. Yovanovitch characterized that approach as “worrying,” because she believed it could thwart “major progress toward transforming the regional reality for the better.”
Dinner and a personality profile
In May 2009, Raffi Hovannisian accepted Yovanovitch’s invitation to dinner. The ambassador was as much interested in Hovannisian’s views on the recent election for Yerevan mayor as she was on his thoughts on Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. The dinner produced two detailed accounts of Hovannisian’s politics, one on his take on domestic politics, and another on his foreign policy. In the first, Yovanovitch gave the following testimony on her impressions of Hovannisian: “An Armenian-American émigré to Armenia who renounced his U.S. citizenship in the 1990’s to position himself for a run at Armenia’s presidency, Hovannisian is an aberration in the rough-and-tumble politics of post-Soviet Armenia. While Armenian-born politicians run fast and dirty, Hovannisian has remained faithful to his decades-long goal of transforming Armenia’s deformed political culture. Barred from running for president last year on an immigration technicality, it is widely assumed that the authorities will never permit the reformist Hovannisian a chance at the country’s top posts. One gets the impression in speaking with him that Hovannisian realizes his boat has sailed, and that he is now focused on grooming young, reform-minded, local politicians to overturn the paradigm that has bedeviled his ancestral homeland.”
Yovanovitch’s second cable focused on Hovannisian’s support of rapprochement without preconditions, something all three presidential administrations had advocated for since independence. However, he said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s provocative statements—especially regarding Karabagh—and his use of “emotive vocabulary” were “fraying Armenia’s nerves.” He considered the response from the Armenian side inadequate. He noted that the timing of the roadmap to normalization—just before newly elected President Obama’s April 24 address—was being met with suspicion and fear that the Armenian government had sold out. Yovanovitch, in turn, stressed that the present opportunity to normalize relations with Turkey was “truly rare,” and that “trust on both sides, particularly between President Sarkisian and PM Erdogan was critical, lest the opportunity be lost.” According to the cable, “Hovannisian then griped that ‘a border opening’ should not even be part of Turkish-Armenian negotiations to normalize relations. He called the 1993 border closing by Turkey a ‘hostile act,’ and said that years after ‘Turkey unilaterally closed its border with Armenia,’ it now seeks ‘additional chits’ to re-open it. Hovannisian fumed that the current Turkish approach amounted to ‘puerile diplomacy.’”
In her concluding remarks summarizing her impressions on Hovannisian’s foreign policy, Yovanovitch wrote, “The grandson of a ‘genocide’ survivor who was dismissed as foreign minister after issuing heated remarks on an official visit to Turkey in the early 1990’s, Raffi Hovannisian obviously has strong views on the way Armenia should handle rapprochement with Turkey. The authorities have a long way to go to prepare their public on rapprochement if they have yet to convince a respected opinion maker like Hovannisian of the merits of their approach. If properly informed and consulted, Hovannisian could be a powerful advocate of rapprochement—if not, he could become yet another opponent on a long and growing list.”
Hopeful and resolute
On June 18, 2009, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon met with Hovannisian. During the meeting, Hovannisian criticized the elections for Yerevan mayor and City Council as a “failed post-Soviet election” that revealed the challenges ahead in the establishment of the rule of law, as well as a transparent electoral system. He expressed his hopes that the ARF, which had recently defected from the ruling coalition, would turn into a real opposition party. “He expressed hope that the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun Party, which recently broke with the governing coalition over its reconciliation efforts with Turkey, will become a genuine opposition party and will not focus just on the single issue of genocide recognition. He hopes it will support rule of law and democratic reform, which he claims to be at the heart of Heritage’s agenda,” wrote Yovanovitch. Hovannisian spoke about the sophistication in election fraud, about how there was essentially a one-party rule in the country, as the Republican Party always ensured its candidates would have the necessary votes to win by using administrative resources. He said the Armenian authorities knew how to “play” Europe well—by hinting at reforms just before the quarterly meetings of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), but rarely coming through.
Gordon also became familiar with Hovannisian’s views on Turkey. He “insisted” that Turkey come to terms with its past, as real normalization would not be possible without Turkey acknowledging the genocide. He rejected the notion of a historical commission that would place the genocide at its center. He also argued that recognition of Nagorno-Karabagh, like recognition of Kosovo or South Ossetia, was a political act; and that, like the latter two, Karabagh should enjoy it as well.
In her comments, Yovanovitch said Hovannisian’s positions are “generally well-crafted” and “based on sound legal argument, even in cases where they may not be politically viable.” As to his involvement in politics, she believed that he is “unwilling to invest himself fully in the political process at home at the risk of a major failure.”
Protocols tip the scale
About two months later, on Aug. 31, 2009, Yovanovitch was relaying back to Washington news that the opposition—comprised of “the ultra-nationalist” ARF, the Armenian National Congress (ANC), and Heritage—had joined forces to oppose Sarkisian and his handling of the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement negotiations. They were calling on the president to pull out of the talks and “denounce alleged Armenian concessions on N-K.” Yovanovitch conveyed that following the ARF’s “raucous two-day conference” in Stepanakert, the other opposition parties had quickly joined forces. She noted that “the loudest and most strident criticism of Armenian policy on Turkey and N-K” was coming from the ARF.
“Armenia’s failure to achieve real progress toward normalization and a border opening with Turkey by the time of the Turkey-Armenia soccer match in October would create a clear danger point for Sarkisian and his government, though most of our interlocutors downplay scenarios that could lead to the President’s removal,” warned Yovanovitch, “Fortuitously for Sarkisian, personal rivalries and differing perspectives among the three opposition groups will likely hinder their ability to form and maintain a united front. The rising and increasingly vocal criticism of the President’s foreign policies, however, make significant, near-term concessions on N-K very unlikely, and ensure that Sarkisian will stay away from the Turkey-Armenia soccer match in October in the absence of visible progress toward a deal,” she added, but reassured Washington that “the long-term agendas and personal rivalries” among the opposition groups would pose a challenge to their unified front against Sarkisian.
As for Raffi Hovannisian, Yovanovitch would attribute his stance to his diaspora roots, faintly implying that the oddball politician was a hybrid, the child of two different worlds, and that, in this case, one side was dominating: “As a diaspora Armenian himself, Hovannisian’s personal convictions on issues like Turkey and N-K are in some respects similar to Dashnak views. But the Heritage agenda—which lays heavy emphasis on political reform, rule of law, human rights, and democratization—is significantly broader than the Dashnaks’,” she wrote.
About a week later, Hovannisian resigned from the National Assembly, leaving many, including Pennington, dumbfounded. Heritage leader Armen Martirosian told embassy officials that Hovannisian had said his reasons were “personal and related to crucial national issues.” Martirosian seemed as stunned as Pennington. “I know [Hovannisian’s explanation] doesn’t mean much to you, and it doesn’t to me either, but that’s what he told us,” he said, while Heritage Party Secretary Stepan Safarian said, “Raffi is a combination of an Armenian and American politician, so maybe you’ll [Pennington] understand him better than I do.”
Some believed Hovannisian’s decision was linked to his disapproval of the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement protocols. Others suspected he was “saving” himself for the 2013 presidential elections. “Rectifying the historic injustices committed against the Armenian population in early 20th century Turkey (what he refers to as ‘the great dispossession’) has been Hovannisian’s cause celebre throughout his professional career—as independent Armenia’s first Foreign Minister, as founder and director of a prominent think tank, and then as political party founder and aspirant for the Armenian presidency. A sharp critic of the GOAM’s [government of Armenia] rapprochement policy that he thought was selling out ‘the cause,’ it appears that Hovannisian could not stomach the recently signed Turkish-Armenian protocols,” wrote Pennington, adding, “A principled resignation to protest a policy would make sense if one were a member of the ruling party. In Hovannisian’s case, however, it isn’t yet clear what statement he hopes to make in resigning from the sole—and miniscule—opposition faction in Parliament. The idea that Hovannisian is ‘saving’ himself for a presidential run seems farfetched. By opting out of one of the most important debates in Armenia’s political history, it seems more likely that Hovannisian is taking a step toward political irrelevance.”
“The reformist” Hovannisian reemergence
Hovannisian is in fact a hybrid politician. He is persistent in his efforts to connect to voters, whether by driving to the countryside in a brightly colored bus or by giving a helping hand to a potential voter. All the while, he has continued to craft an image of himself as “the people’s man.” Even his populist campaign slogan—“It is possible!”—is reminiscent of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can!” catchphrase, which was successful in capitalizing on the idea of hope—a commodity many Armenian voters thirst for. U.S. diplomats have recognized Hovannisian’s ability and will to appeal to and bond with common folk, a strength other opposition leaders, like the “deeply disliked” opposition leader Ter Petrosian, have failed to hone.
Hovannisian has also long been on the record with his demands for democratic reforms, another bonus that sits well with the multitude of disgruntled citizens. He believes democratization should be supported and prioritized by American diplomats, and it has been his mission to drive this message home. There is very little room for questioning U.S. policies towards Armenia. What the cables demonstrate is that geopolitical considerations are at the forefront of U.S. concerns in the Caucasus. Some might even think it naïve of the former foreign minister to hope otherwise, given the U.S. foreign policy track record. But Hovannisian has adopted a different angle to sell to American diplomats: Forget about democratization for its own sake, support democratic reforms for the sake of regional solutions that are supported by a legitimate government—and by extension, the people. After all, we all witnessed the pitiful ending to the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement protocols, and so did the American diplomats.
But U.S. Embassy officials have also learned that in Armenia, given enough time (sometime as little as days) the opposition begins butting heads. U.S. envoys have watched as opposition coalitions formed and dissolved, marked by personal grudges, rivalries, and “clashes of egos.” The opposition, it seemed, just couldn’t maintain alliances long enough to mount successful and unified campaigns.
As part of the tapestry that is the opposition, Hovannisian, too, has proved to have—in Ambassador Evans’ words—a “track record of joining and then departing coalitions.” Sometimes, those within his party circle have been unaware or unsure of his political maneuvers. And so, Hovannisian has remained an enigma for both his Armenian compatriots and his American observers. Time and again he has appeared to be on the brink of “irrelevance,” only to resurface, undaunted. A hybrid politician, Hovannisian is both unconventional and unpredictable—and that is his edge.