Armenia’s democratic credentials have been dealt a severe blow by the results of last month’s presidential election, which is widely seen as having been fraudulent. The ruling regime, led by the controversially reelected President Robert Kocharian, has once again demonstrated that it will not give up power just because Armenian voters might wish it to do so.
Armenia is thus plunging deeper into the political quagmire that has thwarted its transition to democracy for nearly ten years. With vote rigging becoming a political tradition, it will be even more difficult to change the oligarchic nature of the country’s system of government. The Armenian opposition has been effectively left without legal means of political participation, while the international community seems unwilling to back up its strong criticism of the authorities’ handling of the election with concrete action to remedy the situation.
Repeated calls before the election by U.S. and European officials for a clean vote were largely ignored by Armenian leaders–and for good reason, one assumes. The United States said afterwards that it would continue to work with Kocharian’s administration despite its “deep disappointment” over the electoral fraud. The Council of Europe was also willing to give Yerevan another chance. This suggests that Armenia will face no problems in the Strasbourg-based organization if the May 25 parliamentary elections are more democratic.
Any hopes that Armenia might break with its troubled electoral history were quickly dissipated during the second round of voting on March 5, when Kocharian was pitted against opposition leader Stepan Demirchian. Never before had there been so many reports of serious vote irregularities from polling stations across the country. Ballot box stuffing, witnessed by international observers, stood out as the most common form of falsification. It became the hallmark of the presidential race.
Official claims that Kocharian polled 67.5 percent of the vote to Demirchian’s 32.5 percent rang hollow. If Kocharian was so popular, many wondered, why were his loyalists so heavily involved in the irregularities? Demirchian, who had managed to rally the majority of leading opposition groups around his candidacy, refused to concede defeat and demanded that a new vote be held. Since that time, the opposition has used a campaign of street protests to keep up pressure on the authorities. It is also fighting for the annulment of the official run-off results by the Constitutional Court.
But because Armenian courts rarely challenge the government, that seems an unlikely development. And the political elite’s thoughts are turning increasingly to the approaching parliamentary elections. The Demirchian-led opposition, which has formed an electoral alliance, is gearing up for another showdown with the regime. Control of the Armenian parliament is just as vital for Kocharian as the presidency, and he will go to great lengths to retain it. This fact hardly bodes well for freedom and fairness of the legislative polls.
Of the presidential elections, one Western diplomat in Yerevan said: “If there was going to be vote manipulation you wouldn’t expect it to be so crude.” Indeed, with the opposition failing to agree on a single presidential candidate, few initially expected Kocharian to have any trouble securing a second five-year term in office. But the start of the presidential campaign exposed the extent of public discontent with the regime, as scores of people attended rallies held by the four main opposition candidates. Demirchian quickly emerged as the most popular of them, drawing huge crowds across the country. They identified him with his hugely popular father, Karen, who had ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974-1988 and was assassinated in the still mysterious 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. Ironically, the late Demirchian is widely believed to have been robbed of victory in the previous, 1998 presidential election.
By the time voters went to the polls for the first time on February 19, it was obvious that Kocharian would fail to win a smooth first-round reelection, something for which he worked hard through much of 2002. His frequent visits to successful businesses (even small ones), along with his recourse to citing rosy macroeconomic statistics, were clearly designed to create the image of an effective administrator who works day and night to improve the lot of his impoverished people. The closure in April 2002 of Armenia’s only major independent television channel was aimed at warding off any public questioning of Kocharian’s accomplishments.
However, Kocharian was forced on February 20 to order his loyal Central Election Commission to schedule a run-off vote. That move came in the face of serious accusations of fraud from Kocharian’s main challengers. Similarly strong criticism was voiced by a monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At one point Kocharian seemed to be losing his hold on power. But the regime quickly regained its nerve and unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition. More than 200 supporters of Demirchian were arrested before the March 5 second round on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism” allegedly committed during remarkably peaceful rallies against Kocharian. Many of those arrested were sentenced to prison sentences of up to fifteen days in closed trials that were denounced by local and international human rights groups.
But the run-off dashed hopes for democratic change in Armenia. Once again there were numerous reports of groups of men bursting into polling stations and–under the noses of election officials and police–stuffing into ballot boxes stacks of ballots pre-marked for Kocharian. There were also widespread instances of vote buying (with an elaborate mechanism outside polling stations called “carousel” by Armenians), deliberate miscounting of ballots, number fixing and bullying and expulsion of Demirchian proxies. OSCE observers assessed the result diplomatically, saying that the Armenian vote “fell short of international standards for democratic elections.”
The sheer scale of the electoral fraud showed just how entrenched Armenia’s ruling oligarchy has become. Tens of thousands of people are now involved in this symbiotic system, which includes the state security apparatus, the government bureaucracy, pro-establishment parties and the business elite. They are bound together by both fear and vested interests. At least for the highest echelons of this corrupt network, a loss of political power might mean a loss of many of the privileges that they now enjoy. They are therefore inherently disinterested in Western-style liberal democracy and the rule of law. This is especially true for their two most feared leaders: Kocharian and Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. Both men come from Nagorno-Karabakh and rose to prominence during the 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan.
This entire “power class” was called to arms during the presidential race, and made use of more than 200 campaign offices in an effort to ensure Kocharian’s reelection. Manned by local political bosses, businessmen and, at times, quasi-mafia elements, each office was responsible for a particular area of the country. Working in conjunction with a local electoral commission, each had a specific “plan” to secure a particular number of votes for Kocharian. Most of this pre-election work amounted to preparations for vote buying, with the average bribe for a single vote being about US$10. As the election showed, however, even these efforts were not enough to win Kocharian a majority of votes.
The regime used to its own advantage the widespread poverty and unemployment that exists in Armenia. A failure to ensure Kocharian’s victory could, for example, cost chairpersons of electoral bodies–mostly mid-level government officials–their jobs. Public sector employees openly voicing their support for the opposition ran similar risks. OSCE observers on their own confirmed several firings of individuals connected to the Demirchian campaign. Also, businesspeople avoided openly sponsoring opposition candidates out of fear of harassment from tax inspectors. This would appear to explain why virtually all shops and restaurants in Armenia were decorated with Kocharian campaign posters.
Poverty also made opposition activists easy prey for government corruption. The National Democratic Union, the only pro-Demirchian party to have a seat in the 1,900 or so election commissions, admitted that many of its commissioners were bribed and turned a blind eye to the vote falsifications. Civil society, already hard hit by the post-Soviet economic slump, was thus another victim of the Armenian election. It will need years to repair the damage.
The election may also have important implications for Armenia’s foreign policy orientation. Strong Western criticism of the polls contrasted with Russia’s quick and unconditional recognition of the outcome. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate Kocharian, a move that came against a backdrop of anti-Western rhetoric by Armenian leaders. Defense chief Sarkisian, for example, said that Western standards for democracy do not necessarily coincide with Armenian ones.
Some local observers believe that Kocharian, faced with a reluctance by the United States and Europe to accept his legitimacy, will push Armenia even closer to Russia, its traditional ally. They point to an impending Russian-Armenian deal that will give Moscow virtually full control over Armenia’s energy sector.
The Russians already supply 80 percent of the energy resources used by the small Caucasus state. Moreover, Moscow last year also gained control of Armenia’s largest thermal power plant–in return for writing off Yerevan’s US$100 million debt. Under another swap agreement already finalized by the two governments, the Russian giant RAO Unified Energy Systems will take over the financial management of Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear station and six hydroelectric plants. In exchange the Russian company will repay Metsamor’s US$40 million debt to Russian suppliers of nuclear fuel.
One Yerevan newspaper wrote recently that this is the price Kocharian will pay for staying in power for five more years. But the price may prove too heavy for Armenia’s “complementary” foreign policy–that is, of its efforts to balance the Armenian alliance with Russia with closer political and security ties to the United States and Europe. The latter will now treat with greater skepticism Yerevan’s assurances that Armenia is a European nation committed to Western values.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.