With less than a month to go before Armenia’s crucial parliamentary elections, Russia has signaled its support for an anticipated handover of power from Armenian President Robert Kocharian to newly appointed Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian. In a series of early April visits to Yerevan, senior Russian officials indicated Moscow’s strong opposition to regime change in the loyal South Caucasus state. The Russians also plan to send a record-high number of election observers, in an apparent bid to counter and/or water down Western criticism of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the May 12 vote.
Control of Armenia’s next parliament is essential for the success of Sarkisian’s plans to succeed Kocharian after the latter completes his second and final term in office in March 2008. His governing Republican Party (HHK) is widely regarded as the election frontrunner not so much because of its popularity as its vote-rigging capacity that manifested itself during the previous legislative polls. Talk of Sarkisian’s presidential ambitions intensified after he was named to replace Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who died of a heart attack on March 25. Some Russian media and pro-Kremlin analysts said that Sarkisian is Moscow’s preferred candidate for the Armenian presidency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov effectively confirmed this as he visited Yerevan on April 3. “The official position of Russia coincides with the unofficial position of Russia,” he told journalists. Lavrov stressed the need for continuity in the Kocharian administration’s policies, which he said have proved beneficial for Armenia. Russia wants to see a “continued movement in that direction,” he said. “Russia, which traditionally plays an important role in internal political processes in Armenia, has made it clear who it has sided with,” the Moscow daily Kommersant wrote on April 9.
Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov made it even clearer during a separate visit to Armenia two days later. Ivanov said he and Sarkisian had developed “not only good businesslike but also personal relations” in their previous capacity as defense ministers of the two countries. “The human capital which we developed in the past few years is very useful and allows us to discuss many issues in a straightforward and frank manner,” he said at a news conference.
Sarkisian underlined the significance of Ivanov’s trip by greeting and bidding farewell to the Russian deputy prime minister at Yerevan airport, despite his higher government rank. Russian backing has helped him and Kocharian to keep the Armenian opposition at bay throughout their nearly decade-long joint rule. It will also bode well for the realization of his presidential ambitions, which seem to be approved by Kocharian. The Armenian constitution bars Kocharian from seeking a third five-year term. But he is clearly keen to remain in government in some other capacity.
The administration of President Vladimir Putin has little reason to be unhappy with Armenia’s two most powerful men. After all, they were instrumental in the signing in recent years of highly controversial agreements that have given Moscow a near total control over the Armenian energy sector. Sarkisian has personally negotiated those deals in his capacity as co-chairman of a Russian-Armenian inter-governmental commission on economic cooperation. He and Kocharian have also bolstered the Russian presence in other sectors of the Armenian economy such as telecommunication. In addition, membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the continued presence of Russian troops in Armenia remain key elements of Yerevan’s national security doctrine.
All of that has more than offset Yerevan’s increased security links with the West, including the launch of an individual partnership action plan with NATO and the dispatch of Armenian troops to Kosovo and Iraq. True, the Russians have covertly sponsored some pro-Russian opposition groups in Armenia. But they seem to have done so in order to hold the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo in check, rather than to cause its downfall.
Moscow appears to be disinterested in regime change in Armenia also because of its broader opposition to the democratization of the political systems of this and other former Soviet republics. Two of those states, Georgia and Ukraine, are now led by staunchly pro-Western presidents as a result of democratic revolutions sparked by rigged elections. Armenia could likewise have a less pro-Russian regime if its current leaders hold a democratic election and run the risk of losing power.
Incidentally, the first foreign visitor received by Sarkisian after his April 4 appointment as prime minister was Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Rushailo arrived in Yerevan to discuss preparations for the upcoming elections. After the talks he announced that the CIS Secretariat plans to deploy some 200 election observers in Armenia, far more than it did in the past. Unlike their counterparts from the OSCE and the Council of Europe, CIS observers described the previous Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections tainted with widespread fraud as “free and fair.” Their next verdict will hardly be more negative. The drastic increase in the size of the CIS observer mission, to be headed by Rushailo, is clearly aimed at giving its statements greater credibility.
Russia also intends to seriously influence the findings of some 330 mostly Western observers that are due to monitor the Armenian elections on behalf of the OSCE. Their opinion will be key to the international legitimacy of the vote. As a leading OSCE member state, Russia can contribute up to 10% of the organization’s vote monitoring missions. As Lavrov stated in Yerevan, Moscow, which has slammed the OSCE for questioning the legitimacy of former Soviet governments, will for the first time use its participation quota in full.
(168 Zham, April 12; Haykakan Zhamanak, April 10; Kommersant, April 9; RFE/RL Armenia Report, April 3, April 5)