Armenia’s looming February 18 presidential election made headlines a weekend ago when one of its candidate, Paruyr Hayrikyan (Պարոյր Հայրիկեան), was shot.
Despite the assassination attempt, however, the election will go on as scheduled, and Hayrikyan has withdrawn a court application to delay the election by two weeks, despite an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the united backing of all opposition candidates behind his campaign.
With or without the delay, however, the election’s result was never incredibly in doubt — Serzh Sargsyan (Սերժ Սարգսյան) is the overwhelming favorite to be reelected as Armenia’s president, in a country with uncertain democratic norms and with several economic and geopolitical problems facing it in the years ahead, including complex relations with the United States, Europe, Russia, Turkey and its neighbors in the South Caucasus.
Despite the fact that Armenian media has focused intensely on the Hayrikyan assassination attempt in the past two weeks, the latest polls shows that Sargsyan (pictured above with Russian prime minister and former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev) will easily win the contest with nearly 68% of Armenians supporting his candidacy, with just 24% supporting Raffi Hovannisian (Րաֆֆի Հովհաննիսյան), with only 5% supporting Hayrikyan and none of the other five candidates winning more than 2% of the vote.
Though elections in Armenia have the trappings of democracy, and they are, in fact, freer and fairer than the show elections of, say, Belarus, they are often rigged in favor of the governing party — and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that’s meant first the administration of president Levon Ter-Petrosyan from 1991 to 1998, his successor Robert Kocharyan from 1998 to 2008 and now, Kocharyan’s protége, Sargsyan since 2008.
Moreover, as Sergey Markedonov writes in The National Interest, the election will mark a key turning point for Sargsyan and his government:
For [Sargsyan], the elections of 2013 will bring him a different status within Armenian politics. He will not be taking part as the successor of the acting head of the state. In his first term, he has proven to be a self-sufficient politician who does not fall under the shadow of his predecessor.
Executive power in Armenia is vested in the president, who is the head of government as well as head of state. Legislative power is vested in both the president and Armenia’s unicameral parliament, 131-seat National Assembly (Ազգային Ժողով).
The election itself, however, will provide Armenia a chance for improvement — no one denies that the government is willing to abuse its position to win votes, including by buying off or otherwise pressuring voters. The 2012 parliamentary elections were flawed, as were the 2008 presidential election, which resulted in protests against electoral abuses and a police response that culminated in 10 fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Sargsyan has pledged to run the cleanest elections in Armenia’s history. But his competition is so weak that he will likely be able to win an election outright, without much chicanery, and he’s also shrugged off his somewhat second-string competition, noting that it’s not the government’s job to nurture rivals.
Sargsyan’s party, the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK, Հայաստանի Հանրապետական Կուսակցություն) won the May 2012 parliamentary elections, taking a 69-seat absolute majority in the National Assembly. Although it’s a right-wing party, it’s better described as a ruling party along the lines of United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) in that since 1998, it’s been the vector through which Armenia’s leaders have held power, and from which Armenia’s oligarchs seek patronage — much like United Russia has held power in the Russian Federation since 2001 under Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.
The runner-up (with a respectable 37 seats) was a new center-right alternative party founded in 2003 by wealthy oligarch Gagik Tsarukian, Prosperous Armenia (BHK, Բարգավաճ Հայաստան Կուսակցություն). Think of Tsarukian as a kind of Armenian version of Georgian oligarch, and now prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili — just as Ivanishvili built a glass palace overlooking the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Tsarukian lives in a massive villa overlooking Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Despite Kocharyan’s history with the HHK, Kocharyan himself seemed to provide tacit support to BHK at the end of his own presidential term, as either a hedge against Sargsyan straying too far from Kocharyan’s wishes, or simply to suck up more of Armenia’s political oxygen by holding influence in both of Armenia’s major parties.
In any event, Tsarukian announced in December 2012 that he wouldn’t contest the presidency, tacitly conceding his implicit, if unannounced, support for another Sargsyan term.
Like, Ter-Petrosyan also bowed out — as leader of the centrist Armenian National Congress (HAK, Հայ Ազգային Կոնգրես), he was thought to be keen on making a comeback after losing the 2008 presidential election to Sargsyan in a 52.8% to 21.5% landslide. The HAK won seven seats in the prior 2012 parliamentary elections, making it the third-largest party in the National Assembly, still a minor force, especially given Ter-Petrosyan’s position as a former president. Ter-Petrosyan was at the forefront of 2011 protests throughout the country in support of social justice, democratic reform, reduced corruption, and improved economic conditions.
The fourth-largest faction, Rule of Law (OEK, Օրինաց երկիր), with six seats, is a member of the HHK-led governing coalition, and so is also supporting Sargsyan in the presidential race. The nationalist and leftist Armenian Revolutionary Federation also declined to nominate a presidential candidate.
So with four of the largest rival parties officially on the sidelines, Sargsyan’s chief opponent has been Hovannisian, the leader of the liberal party Heritage (Ժառանգություն), independent Armenia’s first foreign minister from 1991 to 1992 and somewhat a sympathetic ally of Ter-Petrosyan.
Hayrikyan, a well-known former Soviet dissident and the victim of the attempted shooting, is the candidate of the minor Union for National Self-Determination, and is even more of a longshot for the presidency than Hovannisian.
If (but really when) Sargsyan wins reelection, he’ll face five more years of struggling to put Armenia’s fragile economy back on solid footing — an economy that still depends on Russia and Iran for its energy and on its large expatriate community for remittances from the wealthier Armenian diaspora in Russia and in the United States (notably Los Angeles), remittances that contribute a mind-boggling 15% to 30% of GDP. After suffering a mind-blowing 14.15% contraction in 2009, Armenia returned to growth in 2010, but nowhere near the double-digit growth that featured throughout the early and mid-2000s. Its GDP per capita, at around $5,800, is slightly higher than neighboring Georgia’s $5,500, but nowhere near the oil-rich and more developed Azerbaijan, with a GDP per capita in excess of $10,000.
The Azerbaijani comparison rankles in particular, given that relations between the two countries never normalized following the war over Nagorno-Karabakh from 1988 to 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh, originally part of Azerbaijan, but with a predominantly Armenian population, had hoped to break away to Armenia in the 1990s, backed by the Armenian military. The tense status quo is that the region is governed by its own self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh government, making it a de facto independent state, and Azerbaijan hasn’t controlled the region in over two decades.
Nonetheless, Armenia has better relations with Russia than either of its neighbors in the South Caucasus — it is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, Организация Договора о Коллективной Безопасности), a military alliance among Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
At the same time, Sargsyan has reached out to smooth relations with the United States and Europe, not least of which involves a push in 2009 to normalize relations with Turkey — a country many Armenians still despise following the 1915 Armenian genocide, an issue that’s certain to become even more delicate as the 100th anniversary approaches in the next two years.
Although Sargsyan has pushed for international recognition of the 1915 genocide, he didn’t make it a precondition for Turkish talks, and he controversially acknowledged the current Turkish-Armenian border, despite long-felt Armenian claims for ‘Western Armenia,’ certain lands in Turkey once dominated by Armenians, but occupied by Turks (and Kurds) following the Ottoman push to clear Armenians eastward from 1915 to 1923.
Turkish president Abdullah Gül, at Sargsyan’s invitation, even became the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia in 2008. Nonetheless, the 2009 talks broke down over Turkish insistence on a peace accord with Azerbaijan, a step Armenia has been unwilling to take.