Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 35

Armenia’s parliamentary elections have officially been scheduled for May 12, ushering in the traditional period of political upheaval that has defined just about every poll held in the country since independence. Although campaigning is to formally get underway in late March, the leading Armenian parties are already gearing up for what promises to be a very bitter race.

The stakes are particularly high for President Robert Kocharian and his preferred successor, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. Continued control of parliament is vital for Sarkisian’s victory in a presidential election due early next year, as well as for Kocharian’s evident desire to remain in government in some other capacity.

The authorities in Yerevan have assured the West that they will finally hold elections meeting democratic standards. However, there is widespread skepticism about the sincerity of those assurances, with many local commentators fearing that the ruling regime’s lust for power will again outweigh the need for democratic change. The omens are not encouraging.

The governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which Sarkisian is the unofficial leader, is already heavily relying on its grip on most central and local government bodies. That reportedly includes the forced recruitment of civil servants and other public sector employees. The HHK is also backed by the vast majority of wealthy businessmen dependent on government connections. Some of them lead quasi-criminal clans that hold sway in various parts of the country and are in a position to bully and/or bribe voters.

The government camp is also represented by the burgeoning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of Gagik Tsarukian, the richest of the local “oligarchs” who pays ridiculously low taxes, apparently thanks to his proximity to Kocharian. Tsarukian has been spending some of his untaxed profits on nationwide provision of agricultural relief, free medical assistance, and other public services to scores of impoverished people on behalf of the BHK. These “benevolent actions” may be denounced as wholesale vote buying by mainstream Armenian parties, but they have earned the tycoon a populist appeal that seems to be translating into strong support for his party.

The BHK now claims to be by far the largest party with as many as 370,000 members, or 16% of Armenia’s eligible voters. “I want to emphasize that we have the ability to win the upcoming parliamentary elections and to play a serious role in the country’s governance,” Tsarukian declared at a high-profile party congress on December 15. He said at the same time that he himself is not aspiring to any government position, reinforcing the widely held belief that the BHK’s main mission is to serve as Kocharian’s new exclusive power base. Opinion is divided on whether the Armenian president helped to create it as a counterweight to Sarkisian’s HHK or a powerful addition to the presidential camp. Observers agree that Kocharian wants to continue to pull the government strings after completing his second and final term in office in less than a year from now.

Another major pro-Kocharian contender is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD), an old nationalist party represented in the ruling coalition. Despite holding four ministerial portfolios, the HHD, also known as the Dashnak Party, is dissatisfied with its share of the government pie and has threatened to join the opposition ranks if fresh electoral fraud prevents it from making a strong showing on May 12.

The Armenian opposition, meanwhile, seems to have already failed to form a united front against what it considers an “illegitimate” government. Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian’s main challenger in the last presidential election, indicated last week that his People’s Party of Armenia will not form electoral alliances with other opposition groups this time around. Demirchian reportedly received such offers from three smaller pro-Western parties led by former prime ministers Aram Sarkisian and Vazgen Manukian and the U.S.-born former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian. Also deciding to go it alone were two other opposition heavyweights, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and Artashes Geghamian, who finished third in the disputed 2003 presidential election.

The opposition’s failure to set up broad-based blocs is undoubtedly good news for Kocharian and his political allies. As the Yerevan newspaper Iravunk editorialized on February 16, this is “not only objectively beneficial for the regime but also ruinous for the opposition camp itself.” Especially considering the fact television will be largely off limits to opposition parties due to artificially high prices for campaign advertisements set by the Armenian TV stations, all of them loyal to Kocharian.

Besides, Tsarukian’s party will likely earn the Armenian authorities a large number of “clean” votes and thereby reduce the scale of the vote rigging that is clearly needed to ensure their desired election outcome. “The people really want change, and they are being presented with a powerful and ‘generous’ individual with unlimited material resources who is capable of miraculously solving their socioeconomic problems,” commented the daily Aravot. “That is a workable legend for the next few months.”

Yerevan may also have reason not to be worried about negative Western reaction to a repeat of serious vote irregularities, despite stern election-related warnings issued by the United States and the European Union. According to U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, Armenia and Azerbaijan are “very close” to reaching a long-awaited agreement to end the Karabakh conflict after the upcoming Armenian polls. The conflicting parties have been discussing a gradual settlement of the conflict that presumably requires policy continuity in both Baku and Yerevan. Assuming that they really see a chance for Karabakh peace this year, Western powers and Washington in particular will hardly challenge the legitimacy of a government that they hope will help to eliminate the main source of instability in the South Caucasus.

(168 Zham, February 17; Iravunk, February 16; Aravot, February 16; RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 7)