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Armenia: An Opportunity for Statesmanship
Armenia: An Opportunity for Statesmanship
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Hundred Years On, Armenian Genocide Reverberates
A Hundred Years On, Armenian Genocide Reverberates
Report 217 / Europe & Central Asia

Armenia: An Opportunity for Statesmanship

Unless Armenia’s next presidential election is fair and gives its winner a strong political mandate, the government will lack the legitimacy needed to implement comprehensive reforms, tackle corruption and negotiate a peaceful end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Executive Summary

After May’s parliamentary elections, Armenia is preparing for a pivotal presidential vote in 2013 that will determine whether it has shed a nearly two-decade history of fraud-tainted elections and put in place a government with the legitimacy needed to implement comprehensive reform and resolve its problems with Azerbaijan. President Serzh Sargsyan has a brief opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship before he again faces the voters in what is likely to be a competitive contest. Sargsyan has demonstrated some courage to promote change, but like his predecessors, he has thus far failed to deal effectively with serious economic and governance problems, including the debilitating, albeit low-intensity, Nagorno-Karabakh war. Another election perceived as seriously flawed would serve as a further distraction from peace talks and severe economic problems. The likely consequences would then be ever more citizens opting out of democratic politics, including by emigration.

The genuinely competitive parliamentary election had some positive signs. Media coverage during much of the campaign was more balanced, and free assembly, expression and movement were largely respected. The president’s ruling Republican Party won a solid majority of seats, but its former coalition partner, Prosperous Armenia – associated with rich businessmen and ex-president Robert Kocharyan – came in a strong second. The Armenian National Congress (ANC), led by the first post-independ­ence president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, returned to parliament after a more than ten-year absence. Nevertheless, many old problems reappeared: abuse of administrative resources; inflated voters lists; vote-buying; lack of sufficient redress for election violations; and reports of multiple voting and pressure on some voters. Reforms adopted after the violence that left ten dead and 450 injured following the 2008 election that brought Sargsyan to power were spottily implemented.

It is crucial that the February 2013 election in which Sarg­syan will seek a second term, becomes “the cleanest elections in Armenian history”, as the president had promised, not least because polls show very low trust in nearly all government bodies and institutions, including the presidency and parliament. The president initially took some bold steps, most noteworthy attempting to normalise relations with Turkey. A new class of under-40 technocrats, less influenced by Soviet ways of decision-making, has risen through the ranks and is widely seen as favouring a new style of government. But change has been slow. Political courage is needed to overhaul a deeply entrenched system in which big business and politics are intertwined in a manner that is often at least opaque. This manifests itself most vividly through the domination of much of the economy by a small group of rich businessmen with government connections.

The political crisis after the 2008 post-election violence, as well as the 2009 world economic crisis, shook Armenia. Weak political will and the resistance of vested interests muted many of the long-overdue, if timid, reforms the administration started. The economy consequently remains undiversified, unhealthily reliant on remittances. Rates of emigration and seasonal migration abroad are alarmingly high. There have been few serious efforts to combat high-level corruption. The executive branch still enjoys overwhelming, virtually unchecked powers. The judicial system is perceived as neither independent nor competent: the prosecutor dominates procedures, and mechanisms to hold authorities accountable are largely ineffective.

Media freedom is inadequate. Outright harassment of journalists and media outlets has decreased, but there is still a glaring lack of diversity in television, from which an overwhelming majority of Armenians get their information. No nationwide broadcasters are regarded as fully independent.

Russia remains Armenia’s key ally – both its main security guarantor and biggest trading and investment partner. Because of the war with Azerbaijan and frozen ties with Turkey, Yerevan has few realistic alternatives to Moscow, though it has frequently sought a “multi-vector” foreign policy and deeper ties with Euro-Atlantic partners. The EU and U.S. are trying to increase their influence, offering expertise and other aid to promote reforms, but they should do more to keep the government accountable and encourage the building of democratic institutions, especially if they want to be seen as credible, even-handed critics throughout the region with elections also due in Georgia and Azerbaijan in 2012-2013. Twenty years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, peaceful democratic transitions of power have yet to become the norm in the South Caucasus.

President Sargsyan and his government acknowledge many of the most pressing problems, but numerous reforms exist only on paper or seem deliberately designed with ineffective enforcement mechanisms. The cautious, evolutionary approach to reforms provides at best weak stability. The breakup of the Republican-Prosperous Armenia governing coalition and a more competitive parliament may now provide the stimulus the administration needs. Limping towards change, however, would neither capitalise on Armenia’s strengths nor be a good presidential campaign strategy. The country needs a better future than a stunted economy and dead-end conflicts with neighbours.

Yerevan/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 25 June 2012

A Hundred Years On, Armenian Genocide Reverberates

Originally published in Council on Foreign Relations

Turkey’s foreign relations, particularly with European capitals and Washington, have been plagued for decades by the debate of whether to use the term genocide in reference to the massacres and forced relocation of the Armenian community of Anatolia from 1915 to 1918.

The debate has led to an annual drama around the Armenians’ memorial day, April 24, with Ankara confronting Armenian campaigns over symbolic statements. This year, on the centenary of 1915, Pope Francis joined the fray, reflecting that the mass killings are now “widely considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.” 

The top echelons of the Turkish government and foreign ministry declared the papal statement a distortion of history, discrimination against Turks and Muslims, and inconsistent with legal and historical facts. Some also deemed it part of an international campaign against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Ankara continues to consider the use of the word genocide a hostile act. That reflex runs counter to the tone of empathy, freer debate, and an expressed eagerness for an unbiased examination of history that has crept into the government’s statements in recent years.

A year ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister and now president, offered condolences to the grandchildren of those Armenians “who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century.” He acknowledged that the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire suffered “inhumane consequences” during World War I. This year, on April 20, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated those condolences.

While welcomed by many, critics perceive this approach as an effort to equate the pain of Armenians with that of Muslims before and during the war, and an abnegation of the Ottoman government’s responsibility for the atrocities its authorities committed against Armenians.

The nationalist vote is up for grabs in this June’s general election, leaving the incumbent AKP especially wary of being seen as bowing to foreign parliamentary resolutions.

In the past decade, the Turkish public debate over history has opened up. Among intellectuals, the use of the term genocide is no longer rare. As taboos have been broken, many individuals’ stories have surfaced, humanizing the debate. Meanwhile, engagement with liberals in the Armenian diaspora—including scholars, artists, and the descendants of Ottoman Armenians visiting as tourists—is changing hearts and minds among more and more Turks.

It is factors like these, rather than foreign parliamentary resolutions, that will help put an end to decades of denial about the destruction of the ancient Armenian communities of Anatolia.