Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 4

By Emil Danielyan

Armenia will hold its third presidential election in six years on February 19. The event will demonstrate whether the country has made any progress toward democracy or remains bogged down in an oligarchy where voters rarely decide anything.

President Robert Kocharian, now leading in the opinion polls, is aiming for a landslide re-election in the first round of voting by capitalizing on the weakness of his opponents. The danger is that he and his allies, most of them government officials, will win, but fraudulently.

Having weathered many political storms throughout his five years as president, the powerful incumbent is believed reluctant to enter a run-off vote with the most popular opposition candidate, the outcome of which would be far more unpredictable. Few believe that the 47-year-old Kocharian would step down readily if faced with a popular no-confidence vote.

This is especially true now that he is in full control of the central and local government apparatuses, following a three-year consolidation of his hold on power. He has been receiving increasingly enthusiastic pledges of allegiance from just about everyone wielding political, administrative, military and economic authority in Armenia. These people are now hard at work, telling their subordinates how to vote–that is, for whom to vote–and lavishly funding the Kocharian campaign.

Something like that already happened in the previous presidential elections, held in September 1996 and March 1998. In both cases, the strategy didn’t quite work. The ruling regimes fell back on vote rigging–their most reliable remedy and the main source of political tensions in Armenia–to stay in power. Kocharian’s predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosian, didn’t get away with it in 1996 and was ultimately forced by his own ministers to resign seventeen months later.

Kocharian has shown far more perseverance, managing to cling to power after the 1998 vote (scarcely any more democratic than its predecessor). He went on to survive the highly tense aftermath of the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament, which left its hugely popular speaker Karen Demirchian, the powerful prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials dead. Sarkisian, who reportedly fancied himself as Armenia’s next president, was beginning to sideline Kocharian in the months leading up to the still-mysterious bloodbath.

That he was is why Kocharian was suspected, by government factions that revered the assassinated leaders, of masterminding the attack. At one point in late 1999 Kocharian’s days in office looked numbered. But only a few months later he was again at the helm, more powerful than ever. His knack for behind-the-scenes political maneuvering has always served him well.

Kocharian is correct in claiming that Armenia’s dire socioeconomic situation has abated somewhat under his rule–the main reason why he now boasts higher approval ratings than any of his challengers. The economy, according to official figures, grew at a record-high rate of some 13 percent last year with only 3 percent inflation. The growth rate stood at more than 9 percent in 2001.

While the veracity of Armenia’s official statistics is still debatable, there is a consensus among Western donors that things are getting better, albeit slowly. Indeed, quite a few private manufacturing firms (especially in the food processing sector) have sprung up in recent years, changing the structure of the country’s imports. They, for example, no longer include some basic agriculture-based products that Armenia used to import even in Soviet times. The change is also evidenced by a surge in apartment prices. In Yerevan alone they soared by 40 percent last year. A few more years, Kocharian and his supporters say, and Armenia will turn the corner. Hence their emphasis on the need for continued “stability.”

This seemingly spectacular macroeconomic performance should be taken with a pinch of salt, however. Armenia’s gross domestic product began expanding in 1994 from a very low base, after shrinking by 60 percent in 1992-93, at the height of the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The annual growth has since averaged 5.5 percent. That rate has not been high enough to make a serious difference to ordinary Armenians. At least half of them still live below the poverty line. Unemployment, the number one socioeconomic problem, could still be as high as 40 percent. Foreign investment totaled only US$150 million in 2002.

Even government economists admit that the growth has so far mainly benefited the rich, who continue to evade taxes en masse. This translates to meager tax revenues, making it impossible for the government to put a workable social security net in place.

Kocharian’s economic policy has not differed markedly from that of his predecessor Ter-Petrosian. Both administrations tried to pursue the tight fiscal and monetary policies that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank called for. Kocharian appears to have been more attentive to the donors’ persistent calls for a better microeconomic environment. But he has done little to address the underlying cause of the flawed investment climate–rampant corruption. Nor has he strengthened the rule of law by making Armenian courts independent. Worse still, some lucrative sectors of the economy are controlled by presidential cronies, notably the influential defense minister, Serge Sarkisian.

Kocharian’s track record on political reform is no better. Armenia has not become more democratic since it was admitted into the Council of Europe two years ago. Its parliament has since adopted laws (at the Council’s urging) designed to create an independent civil service and public television and set equal rules for all private broadcasters. But little, in practice, has changed. Last year, for example, saw the closure of Armenia’s leading independent television station, A1+. It was a serious blow to press freedom.

Although Kocharian insists that he is interested in a clean vote, the way his reelection campaign is being conducted gives indications to the contrary. Once again the entire state apparatus has been mobilized to ensure the incumbent’s victory. There are already reports of government officials at various levels instructing their subordinates to vote for Kocharian. According to some local media, village chiefs warn villagers that they will have problems with water and electricity unless Kocharian gets a particular number of votes in their communities.

That Kocharian intends to win outright in the first round is already clear. His top allies are already preparing public opinion for that. Government-connected pollsters regularly publish survey data showing a steady increase in the president’s popularity. They now put his ratings at over 40 percent. The figure will, no doubt, surpass the 50-percent threshold by February 19.

Some observers say Kocharian is not certain about the success of a run-off clash with an opposition candidate. They say the opposition would at last rally around its top performer, who could thus win over additional voters. Faced with a real possibility of regime change, the so-called “power class” might no longer work hard for Kocharian’s reelection.

Not that the opposition candidates have a clear idea of what they would do once in power. Kocharian’s main challengers are two left-wing populists: Stepan Demirchian (the assassinated speaker’s son) and Artashes Geghamian (Yerevan’s last Communist mayor in 1989-90).

Demirchian’s main trump card is that he bears a striking physical resemblance to his father, Soviet Armenia’s Communist boss in 1974-1988–a time of relative prosperity for most Armenians. Many still believe that Demirchian Senior was the rightful winner of the previous 1998 presidential elections. Demirchian Junior may have inherited much of his father’s popularity, but he is a wooden speaker who often ducks tough questions about his vague electoral platform.

Geghamian’s campaign pledges are more concrete but hardly encouraging, at least for Western donors. He promises, in particular, to provide cheap credit to stagnating Soviet-era industries and supports the creation of a Russian-led currency union of former Soviet republics.

Other, less populist oppositionists are unlikely to make a strong showing in the polls–another telling feature of modern-day Armenia. The most pro-Western of them, former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, is seen as having lost his chance in 1996 when he was defeated, fraudulently, by Ter-Petrosian. While a visionary, Manukian is a poor campaigner, reluctant to adapt his discourse and actions to the dominant public mood.

No wonder that many Armenians do not see a credible alternative to Kocharian, especially given that the opposition parties failed to field a single candidate. As one Western diplomat in Yerevan predicts, many will not bother to vote on February 19. There will, he suggests, be “more non-voting than voting” this time around.

Things could change in the event of a run-off, in which Kocharian’s challenger would–in the eyes of the voters, who are confused by the abundance of presidential hopefuls–de facto represent the entire opposition. But with Kocharian so keen to avoid a second-round showdown, that is not the scenario most Armenian pundits expect.

Emil Danielyan is a political scientist and freelance writer in Yerevan.