Analyst Giragosian: Level of discontent not understood by Armenian government

Richard Giragosian (Photo: Today's Zaman, Selahattin Sevi)

February 24, 2013, Sunday/ 12:45:00

The recent re-election of Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan has seen large protests in the South Caucasus country, and this week's guest for Monday Talk says the opposition to Sarksyan is growing.

“The official election results are challenged by many, but more importantly, the current political struggle is less about the specific results, and more about the opposition to the current government,” said Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank located in Armenia's capital of Yerevan.

Last Friday, thousands of people protested in Yerevan against the re-election of Sarksyan, asserting that the opposition party leader, Raffi Hovhannisian, was the real winner.

Answering our questions, Giragosian elaborated on the issue.

First of all, I'd like to hear your comments in regards to Armenia's presidential election. International observers are saying it was an improvement on recent elections but was not genuinely competitive. Do you agree?

Despite another lost opportunity for significantly better, improved and freer and fair elections, Armenia's incumbent president, Serzh Sarksyan, was re-elected. According to the official results, which are disputed and criticized by many in Armenia, Sarksyan reportedly secured 58.6 percent of the vote, with his main challenger, Raffi Hovhannisian garnering 36.7 percent of the vote. Most significantly, Hovhannisian won a decisive 70 percent of the vote in the country's second-largest city, Gyumri, and also won in Vanadzor, the third-largest city, as well as in significant sections of the capital Yerevan.

But in many ways, for the Armenian president, his re-election may be the easier part, especially as the opposition is now uniting behind Hovhannisian and as protests mount. Over the longer term as well, for the next Armenian president, no matter who it is, the real challenge now is to address the pressing policy challenges that continue to hinder the country. Although these issues were missing from the presidential campaign, the combination of economic crisis and insufficient political reform present serious challenges. And although many expected President Sarksyan to be re-elected, that prediction does not infer support, and the government needs to regain public trust and restore confidence.

What was the reason behind his re-election if he has been losing public trust? Do you think Mr. Sarksyan has a plan to regain public's confidence?

Sarksyan's victory was due in large part to two main factors. First, through the campaign, an open division between prominent opposition figures, whose inability to unite, prevented the opposition from coalescing and uniting behind any one personality or consensus candidate. In this way, the division of the opposition only helped Sarksyan. Nevertheless, more interestingly, the opposition is now uniting behind Hovhannisian and, although it is a belated post-election move, it does reflect a new trend of momentum among the anti-Sarksyan camp, now transforming into a dynamic opposition movement standing behind Hovhannisian.

The second reason for the outcome was the factor of incumbency. More specifically, Sarksyan benefited from both the natural advantage of incumbency, whereby the president could rely on the trappings of office and leverage his position and obvious name recognition, and by the unnatural advantage of incumbency, involving the use of so-called “administrative resources,” with pressure on teachers, civil servants and others to support him. At the same time, the now well-documented behavior of local and regional officials, who generally know no better than to “fix” or “rig” an election by intimidating voters, interfered in the vote and, as in the cases of past elections, engaged in voting irregularities and violations.

‘One-third of the Armenian population lives in poverty'

The proportion of people living below the poverty line has been growing in Armenia. How would you describe Armenia's current economic situation? Why have serious economic and political reforms been delayed?

With roughly one-third of the Armenian population now living in poverty, widening disparities in wealth and income and with little progress in terms of job creation, the main challenge for any government will be in managing the mounting economic pressure, which is only exacerbated by the entrenched power and position of the country's so-called “oligarchs.” Moreover, the Armenian government will be hard pressed to overcome the structural impediments of corruption and the low level of tax collection. And as the imperative for second-generation reforms mounts, Armenia will have to both deepen and accelerate economic reforms, thereby tackling and taking on powerful vested interests. But the inherent promise of Armenia's ongoing negotiations with the European Union over a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement [DCFTA] offers a new opportunity to overcome the peril of economic stagnation and isolation. Yet, the danger for Armenia is that its potential only continues to far outweigh its real success.

The attempted assassination of one candidate and another's hunger strike dominated news from Armenia before the election? What should we read from all this? What does it reflect about politics in Armenia?

The shooting of Armenian presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan obviously disrupted the course and the discourse of the campaign, demonstrated by a shift in both public attention and political debate away from policy issues to an intense focus on speculation and conspiracy theories related to the assault. As the campaign was already flawed by a pronounced absence of more serious policy issues or real political debate, the impact of the shooting was only a further erosion of the content of the campaign.

Despite the impact on the campaign, the shooting actually had no real impact on the election itself. In political terms, although the shooting of the candidate triggered a natural surge in media coverage, Hayrikyan remained a marginal candidate, as the greater public attention did not translate into any larger political standing. But the incident also tended to embarrass the government, even though it is now seen as an isolated and a more personal than political act.

Mr. Hovhannisian came a distant second place in the election. And he called himself the real winner and called on Sarksyan to concede defeat. What do you think about Hovhannisian's claim?

The level of discontent has not been understood by the Armenian government, and the level of political activism is increasing, as much of the country's various opposition forces are now standing behind Hovhannisian. But they are more significantly uniting against the government.

Are the election results certain now?

The official election results are challenged by many, but more importantly, the current political struggle is less about the specific results and more about the opposition to the current government. In this way, the campaign is continuing, even beyond the election itself.

Has Hovhannisian announced any plans about what he will do if Sarksyan ignores his ultimatum?

The opposition to Sarksyan is only growing, with both a more dynamic scale and an expanding scope, which means that it is too soon to assess strategy as events remain too fluid, at least at this point. But yes, there is a general, and perhaps dangerous, lack of clear or coherent strategy behind this newfound momentum of opposition to the government. But in order to succeed, there must be a strategic articulation of more concrete demands and more precise political goals.

‘Ter-Petrosyan now seems to be leaning toward Hovhannisian'

Why did Sarksyan's most serious potential rivals -- former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Prosperous Armenia party leader Gagik Tsarukyan -- announce in December that they would not participate in the election? Have they commented on the results?

Ironically, this election was also defined by who chose not to run. In December 2012, millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of the country's second-largest Prosperous Armenia political party, disappointed many of his supporters by deciding not to stand as a candidate, explaining that his party would neither field nor support a candidate. That decision, only days after a rare meeting with President Sarksyan, ended months of speculation over what was perceived as the most serious challenge to the incumbent president. Although stemming from the fact that Prosperous Armenia was never able to fully present itself as a true opposition party after serving as such an integral part of the first Sarksyan administration, the move also reflects the decline of the power and standing of the party, which never seemed able to recover from a disappointing, less-than-expected performance in the May 2012 parliamentary elections.

Only weeks after the decision by the Prosperous Armenia Party to withhold its participation in the election, Armenia's first president, 68-year-old Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the leader of the opposition ANC (Armenian National Congress) and the 2008 challenger to Sarksyan, also announced that he would not stand for the presidency. For its part, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) also failed to field a candidate, breaking with the party's past practice of nearly always putting forward a presidential candidate, no matter how weak or marginal the candidate.

More importantly, through this new post-election political crisis, the Prosperous Armenia Party is predictably silent, as they are a declining, and even questionable or dubious “opposition.” But more surprisingly, former President Ter-Petrosyan now seems to be leaning toward Hovhannisian.

Do you expect conflict in Armenia because of public discontent, similar to what was seen in the deadly post-election confrontations in 2008, between Ter-Petrosyan supporters and security forces?

Given the broader situation and underling discontent, the situation may be moving toward a more heated and intense conflict, similar to 2008, which was never fully resolved. It is simply too early to say, however, and depends more on the government's reaction, or overreaction, to this mounting crisis.


 

‘Turkey-Armenia normalization depends on Ankara as Armenia is ready, willing'

As President Sarksyan has won a new five-year term, what should we expect in regards to dormant Turkey-Armenia relations especially as 2015, the centennial of the events of 1915, is approaching? Some observers see it as an opportunity for Turkey to improve Turkey-Armenia relations, but others do not agree with this. What is your opinion?

In terms of foreign policy, a second, final term may also further allow President Sarksyan to look for new, bold ideas or initiatives in foreign policy, similar to his politically risky but bold initiative in Armenian-Turkish normalization, thereby presenting an opportune time for crafting a real and lasting legacy. Thus, from this perspective, the re-election of Sarksyan to a second term may actually represent more of a first term, as a fresh start. And the imperative now is to tackle a litany of serious and unresolved strategic challenges that have gone largely unaddressed during this presidential campaign.

Why do you think this issue was not addressed during this presidential campaign? Is there now less public support for Turkey-Armenia normalization? Do you think the Armenian government is willing to get back on track with normalization with Turkey?

The issue of normalization is now widely and correctly seen as a non-issue, until and only when Turkey decides to return. Armenia is ready and willing, but Armenian patience is not without limits.

Do you think the Turkish government is willing to get back on track with normalization with Turkey?

This is a good question but needs to be directed to officials in Ankara. But I can say that since the launch of the so-called “football diplomacy” over the “normalization” process between Armenia and Turkey, official, state-level engagement has been suspended, with the issue now a hostage to internal domestic Turkish politics. But there are renewed signs of optimism, as several factors are now may drive Turkey to re-engage and return to negotiations. First, as Turkey feels under mounting pressure over the Armenian genocide, which will only peak in 2015, as commemorations mark the 100th anniversary of the 1915 genocide, Ankara may be motivated to seek a “restart” in efforts to normalize relations with Armenia.

Second, more broadly, in terms of the outlook for Armenian-Turkish normalization, however, the situation remains largely dependent on Turkey. In this way, the general perception and policy in Armenia is one of waiting for Turkey to make the first move. But the danger, in a broader context, is that if Turkey does not return to the normalization process soon, Armenian patience will lessen, and it may actually make the next stage of diplomacy even harder and more difficult.

Would you elaborate on this idea? What can Armenia do?

For its part, beyond waiting for Turkey, Armenia can better leverage those venues where Armenia and Turkey regularly engage and enjoy unofficial diplomatic relations, most notably within the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), for example, an institution where both Armenia and Turkey are founding members.


PROFILE

Richard Giragosian

 

Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank located in Yerevan, Armenia. He also serves as both a visiting professor and senior expert at Yerevan State University's Centre for European Studies (CES) and is a contributing analyst for Oxford Analytica, a London-based global analysis and advisory firm.

Giragosian was previously a regular contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) publications, from 1999-2008, and also served as a contributing analyst for the London-based Jane's Information Group, covering political, economic and security issues in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, from 2003-2010. For nine years, Giragosian served as a professional staff member of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of the US Congress.

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