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Armenia: An Opportunity for Statesmanship
Armenia: An Opportunity for Statesmanship
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks
Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
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

Briefing 71 / Europe & Central Asia

Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks

Stronger international engagement is needed to help prevent the deadly conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan from escalating gravely at a time of internal political tensions in both.

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I. Overview

Confrontation, low-intensity but volatile, between Azerbaijan and Armenia has entered a period of heightened sensitivity. Peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh bogged down in 2011, accelerating an arms race and intensifying strident rhetoric. Terms like “Blitzkrieg’’, “pre-emptive strike’’ and ‘‘total war” have gained currency with both sides’ planners. An immediate concern is military miscalculation, with implications that could far exceed those of a localised post-Soviet frozen conflict, as the South Caucasus, a region where big powers meet and compete, is now also a major energy corridor. Clashes increasingly occur along the Azerbaijani-Armenian frontier far from Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict’s original focus. Tensions have also spread to areas along the border with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan where Azerbaijani and Turkish exercised in July. A subsequent firefight produced casualties, and Armenia staged its own war games near the Azerbaijan border in September. Vigorous international engagement is needed to lessen chances of violent escalation during coming weeks and months.

While a shaky ceasefire has been in place since the war that flared in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, provocative acts are frequent: for example, Baku’s pardon for an officer who killed an Armenian colleague during a NATO-sponsored language course in Hungary, and Yerevan’s declared plan to reopen the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh to fixed-wing flights. Moreover, the possibility of internal political unrest in both countries increases the uncertainty. Unrest at home might tempt leaders to deflect attention by raising military tensions or to embark on risky attempts to capitalise on their adversary’s troubles. Both countries’ leaderships face a testing autumn. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev stands for a third term in October. Most of the traditionally fragmented opposition backs a single candidate for the first time. Though the president’s aides claim support levels of above 70 per cent of the electorate, critics attribute his highly likely victory to the massive administrative resources firmly in his grip. Still, the authorities are concerned lest any unrest gather momentum. Armenia faces a period of uncertainty, with opposition groups planning an autumn of protests.

The strong and coordinated international pressure needed to break the diplomatic deadlock is lacking. There is scepticism in both capitals, as well as among third-country diplomats and analysts, that the officially designated mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Minsk Group – led by Russia, the U.S. and France – can deliver results. Russia’s position raises particular questions about the format’s effectiveness. It is not only a Minsk Group co-chair but also has major strategic interests in the South Caucasus and supplies arms to both sides of the conflict.

Crisis Group has written extensively for years on the dangers posed by this unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. This briefing does not predict a second war is either imminent or more likely than not. It does suggest the near-term threats to stability are becoming more acute. We will report in due course on approaches that might complement the Minsk mediation mechanism in the search for a long-term solution. In the meantime, prudent, prophylactic action is required, including the following:

  • Diplomacy by the Minsk Group co-chairs, the European Union (EU) and others should stress need for a quiet period during which both sides dial down rhetoric. This should be accompanied by energetic international engagement highlighting the risk of miscalculations and the huge costs for both sides of resumed hostilities.
  • Azerbaijan’s presidential election and Armenia’s susceptibility to political crisis in late 2013 make mutual restraint the immediate priority. Intensified regular contacts as well as meetings between ministers and parliamentarians can help in this regard and should be supported.
  • A crisis hotline should be reestablished between Yerevan and Baku to lessen chances of a military escalation. As a modest confidence builder, the two sides should also step up efforts via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to address prisoner of war issues.
  • Russia, which is highly influential in all aspects of the conflict and would be the most directly affected of the Minsk co-chairs by a new war, should act more decisively to broker an agreement. It could advance this by announcing a suspension of arms supplies to both sides. Other suppliers, including South Korea and Israel, should be encouraged to do the same.

Baku/Yerevan/Tbilisi/Brussels, 26 September 2013