Armenia's Looming Elections

The troubles of 2008 are likely to be avoided, but the political situation is not fully healthy.

2013 will be a presidential election year for all of the countries of the South Caucasus, with Armenia becoming the first state to begin its contest. The campaign kicked off in Armenia with the beginning of the nomination process for candidates on December 25. The vote itself is scheduled for February 18. What surprises, if any, can we expect from this election? And how will this campaign impact the general situation in the South Caucasus?

The upcoming elections look as if they will be primarily symbolic. First, no matter the manner in which the current election race is held, it will inevitably be compared to the previous campaign of 2008. During that race, then-incumbent Robert Kocharyan had served two terms in office and was prohibited by the Armenian Constitution from running for a third consecutive term. The transfer of power to current Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan was accompanied by clashes between the government and the opposition, resulting in the deaths of ten people, including eight civilians. This tragedy has haunted the republic’s political community, ruling elites and the opposition alike. Thus, the political class of Armenia must, regardless of the views of the different representatives, demonstrate to the voters they have learned from the tragedy and that such a civil confrontation will not happen again. During the parliamentary elections of 2012, the political system and the political class demonstrated the ability to avoid clashes and open hostility. The presidential campaign should serve to consolidate this trend.

For current president Serzh Sargsyan, the elections of 2013 will bring him a different status within Armenian politics. He will not be taking part as the successor of the acting head of the state. In his first term, he has proven to be a self-sufficient politician who does not fall under the shadow of his predecessor.

In foreign policy, Sargsyan has managed to avoid any serious mistakes. In the beginning of his term as president, he was strongly criticized for the forced normalization of relations with Ankara (the so-called “football diplomacy”). But he has not passed the red line separating diplomatic compromises from unilateral concessions to the Turkish government. At the same time he has managed to keep Armenia’s foreign relations with both Russia and the West in equilibrium.

In relations with the United States and Europe, Sargsyan was even able to make gains. Washington and Brussels regarded his predecessor with suspicion and clear displeasure, especially after the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections and his hot, nationalist propaganda. Unlike Kocharyan, Sargzyan was committed to the peacekeeping rhetoric supported by both Russia and the West on the issues of the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations or the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. At the same time, he did so without departing from the previously stated goals of Armenia’s foreign policy.

This same approach was applied to the relationship with Russia. On the one hand, during the Sargzyan presidency Russia and Armenia agreed (in August 2010) to extend the presence of the a Russian military base in Gyumri until 2044. On the other, Yerevan has taken an official line of cautious skepticism towards membership in the Custom Union or Eurasian Union, both of which are integration projects led by Russia.

The Armenian leadership has based its foreign policy on the principles of realism and rationalism above all else. As a result, Sargsyan is perceived to be the best presidential option by both Moscow and the political leadership of the Western countries.

Sargsyan has also demonstrated his effectiveness in dealing with the domestic situation in Armenia. Like his predecessor, he has shown willingness to utilize his soft power domestically in addition to using more traditional hard pressure on his opponents. In this context it is impossible to underestimate the role of last year’s parliamentary campaign in defining the present-day domestic political configuration. The most important result during that election was that the Armenian National Congress, led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan (the first post-Soviet president of Armenia and a thorn in the side of the Armenian leadership over the past five years), obtained seats in the legislature. This party had not previously been represented in the parliament and had instead concentrated its energies on mass public protests, engaging in clashes that marred the election of 2008.

The inclusion of the Armenian National Congress in the legislature has promoted opposition activity. This, however, has not been purely attributable to the personal success of Sargsyan. The opposition has not been able to put forward any new ideas or viable new political leaders. And of course the different pillars of the variegated opposition have not been able to come together on a common language or common cause with one another, making the work of the ruling authorities that much easier. As a result, Levon Ter-Petrosyan refused to participate in this year’s presidential campaign.

The second, equally important issue on the domestic political front is the search for balance within the ruling elite. The political landscape in Armenia today is much more complex than that of the neighboring states in the Caucasus. Unlike Russia, Georgia or Azerbaijan, Armenia has a number of ruling parties rather than just one. As such, the real domestic political intrigue in Armenia is found not between the authorities and opposition, as is common in the other Caucasus countries, but between the various elite groups within the administration.