BACKGROUND: The Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) predictably won the parliamentary elections on April 2, securing 58 of 105 seats in the National Assembly. Compared with previous elections, ballot stuffing and violence against opposition representatives and independent observers played a smaller role. Instead, vote buying was more substantial, as was the practice of bussing voters to voting stations. Other violations also took place, including voting on behalf of citizens living abroad, as well as a number of school principals preparing lists of students’ parents and requesting them to vote for RPA. Public servants and conscripted soldiers were required to vote for RPA under threat of, respectively, losing their jobs or being transferred to more dangerous posts. Some were required to vote for RPA’s would-be coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun (ARF). ARF received seven seats and seemingly would not have been able to pass the threshold without such support.
Shortly after the elections, RPA and ARF signed a coalition memorandum. RPA’s willingness to once again form such a coalition, despite winning a majority of the seats on its own, could be explained by the need to ensure support for the government among the diaspora, among which ARF enjoys substantial popularity.
The Tsarukyan bloc formed around businessman Gagik Tsarukyan became the second largest parliamentary fraction with 31 seats. The bloc’s main mission was seemingly to split the dissatisfied electorate (see the 03/20/17 Issue of the CACI Analyst) and hardly criticized the government during the election campaign, focusing instead on making populist promises. Tsarukyan himself replied to a journalist’s question about the absence of criticism that “the elections are not about politics.” This statement, despite its absurdity, is not surprising for those familiar with Armenian politics, particularly the origins of Tsarukyan’s wealth, his previous activities as the founder of the Prosperous Armenia Party, and his previous attempt to challenge President Serzh Sargsyan (see the 03/18/15 Issue of the CACI Analyst).
The remaining nine seats in the National Assembly went to the Way Out bloc, which has been accused by Armenian National Congress and the Free Democrats Party, neither of which passed the threshold, of striking a deal with President Sargsyan. The Ohanyan-Oskanyan bloc also did not pass the threshold. The bloc is formed by two former ministers of defense and foreign affairs who turned oppositional after losing their posts and backed by former President Robert Kocharyan’s financial and media resources (see the 03/20/17 Issue of the CACI Analyst). One of the bloc’s known supporters – Samvel Babayan, a former minister in the de facto government of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – was arrested a few days before the elections. He was charged with an illegal attempt to acquire a Russian-made Igla man-portable surface-to-air missile launcher with a 9M39 missile. There were also speculations about a possible criminal case against former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan related to corruption in the army during his ministerial tenure but these rumors ceased after the elections.
IMPLICATIONS: Unlike all previous elections in the last 22 years, no mass demonstrations followed the April 2 elections. The public apathy can partly be ascribed to the opposition’s inability to deploy effective political communication. However, it also confirms that because of the traditional voter behavior pattern, the opposition has been more successful in mobilizing support during presidential, rather than parliamentary, elections. Therefore, abandoning the practice of direct presidential elections, as envisioned in Armenia’s new constitution, will reduce political participation as well as the potential for protests after elections (see the 12/29/15 Issue of the CACI Analyst).
The mayoral elections in Yerevan on May 14 again confirmed the RPA’s determination to reach its goals by any means possible. Without the presence of a significant international observation mission, more violations took place during these elections than the parliamentary polls. Vote buying and instruction of voters were in many cases done openly, at RPA’s offices or even on the streets, with little attention paid to videos made by journalists or civil activists showing how police protected the violators. Opposition candidates, their proxies and observers were violently attacked on a number of occasions. The sitting mayor, Taron Margaryan, was reelected.
Ara Babloyan, a former Minister of Health who has not demonstrated significant political ambitions, was nominated as Speaker of the newly-elected parliament. This is yet another indication that Sargsyan plans to remain in power after 2018, when his second presidential term will be over and the transition to a parliamentary system completed. Due to his effective control of the party apparatus and the parliamentary majority, Sargsyan can comfortably become either Prime Minister or chair of RPA. Therefore, the establishment of a formal multi-party system in a de facto institutionalized one-party state has essentially been completed. Also, considering RPA’s control of the law enforcement agencies and courts, this state capture practically cannot be reversed by means of elections or judicial review. Quite symbolically, one of the first decisions of the newly-elected parliament was to dispose of the standing committee on human rights.
Peaceful mass protests remain the only constitutional means by which to overturn this development. However, there is no opposition movement capable of organizing such actions. The opposition is fractured and demoralized, which was underscored by the absence of protest demonstrations after the elections. Likewise, no protests ensued after the decision to extradite a Russian soldier convicted of murdering an Armenian family of seven to Russia, publicized about a month after the elections. Moreover, as demonstrated during a protest campaign against a planned increase of electricity fees in 2015, even a strong mass movement can easily be manipulated, put on the defensive, divided and ultimately terminated by the government and Russian TV propaganda by means of insinuating that the protests were anti-Russian in nature (see the 08/19/15 Issue of the CACI Analyst). Most of the Armenian opposition remains obsequious towards Russia, just like the ruling coalition members, and justifies that attitude by referring to Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine, yet without admitting that Russia is an aggressor.
Voters’ behavior has played an important role in the transformation of the oligarchy into a de facto one-party system. Those who accepted the amount offered for vote buying had already experienced of several previous elections, with the same pattern repeated time and again. Immediately after the elections, the prices of staple foods (most of which are produced or imported by oligarchs’ companies without genuine competition) rise, implying that the oligarchic system retrieve the money spent on campaigning and vote buying within a few days or weeks. The same pattern was repeated in 2017.
CONCLUSIONS: While Armenia’s oligarchic system and the country’s dependence on Russia continue to mutually sustain each other, Armenia’s Western partners keep trying to provide alternatives. The U.S. Embassy supported the organization of a conference on renewable energy in Yerevan in May, with the participation of several U.S. companies. Ambassador Richard M. Mills noted that as a potential for development in that sphere exists, a sound economic policy would open for substantial U.S. investments of up to US$ 8 billion. However, optimism regarding the government’s ability to improve the business climate for foreign companies is clearly unwarranted. Large Western investments would contradict the interests of both Armenian oligarchs, whose businesses could become non-competitive, and of Russia. Aside from a possible increase of Western influence in Armenia, Russia’s economic security strategy until 2030, signed by President Vladimir Putin on May 15, considers the development of renewable energy a threat to Russia’s interests.
The EU, in turn, initialed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with Armenia on March 21. It aims to develop stronger cooperation in sectors such as energy, transport and the environment, and to improve the regulatory environment for business. Yet in this case, it should be recalled how Russian pressure led Armenia to abandon the EU Association Agreement in 2013 (see the 09/18/13 Issue of the CACI Analyst). The final outcome of the current EU-Armenia negotiations may also depend on Moscow’s whim as well as a number of other uncertain factors, including the economic situation in Russia, Germany’s elections, and EU-Russia relations.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Armen Grigoryan is an Armenian political scientist, and the author of several book chapters, journal articles, and policy papers. His research interests include post-communist transition, EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries, transatlantic relations, energy security, and conflict transformation.
Image source: kremlin.ru accessed on 08.06. 2017