BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Armenia Parliamentary Elections Briefing
HITS: 9901 | 22-08-2007, 04:00 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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Sandwiched between Iran and Turkey close to the trans-Caucasus oil pipeline, Armenia is at a sensitive geostrategic crossroads. Will Parliamentary elections trigger another colour-coded revolution?

Parliamentary Elections Briefing
Introduction

Even before Armenians went to the polls on 12th May, 2007, for parliamentary elections, the political atmosphere had become heated with accusations from the opposition and allied NGOs that the government was planning to rig the outcome while the government accused opposition leaders of treasonable behaviour. A week before the vote, the police arrested the last foreign minister of the former President Levon Ter-Petrossian accusing him of money-laundering, while the opposition countered that a prominent pro-government party leader and magnate was buying votes by funding charitable activities. Threats of mass demonstrations against President Robert Kocharian if his parliamentary allies won the elections – as opinion polls predicted – raised the spectre of another “People Power” revolution in the former Soviet Union.

The Geopolitics of Elections

Elections are no longer local affairs. The swarms of (mainly Western) election observers and journalists who descend on small out-of-the-way countries like Armenia for polling days shows how important the results of elections are for international relations. Taxpayers’ money is not spent lightly on these observer missions. They are despatched for a purpose.
Armenia’s sensitive triangular geo-strategic position between Russia, Turkey and Iran, but immediately south of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline which carries oil from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, makes the country’s choice of government a matter of concern in Washington, Brussels, Moscow and Teheran.
Armenia lies athwart a crossroads of power relations between East and West. The parliamentary elections and next year’s presidential elections are key developments in an international power play pitting Washington and its allies against Moscow and Teheran – though the Kremlin and the ayatollahs are hardly singing from the same hymn sheet.
Over the last few years the former Soviet Union has been swept by a succession of “colour-coded” revolutions on the back of allegations of electoral fraud by so-called pro-Moscow regimes. Claiming fraud even before a ballot is dropped in a box has become a routine prelude to a street protest and revolution. Will Armenia follow the well-trodden path of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan?[1]
Although websites like Eurasianet insist that “International observers say that Armenia has never had a fair election”,[2] in fact the OSCE observer missions to both the rigged parliamentary elections in 1995 and the grotesque presidential elections in 1996 found in favour of them. In 1996, the OSCE coordinator begged the members of this group who were observing the re-election shenanigans of Levon Ter-Petrossian not to go public with their critique. Ironically, after the fall of Ter-Petrossian an official at the Armenian central election commission told us that “You did not report on 10% of the irregularities”! In other words, the elections approved by the OSCE in the mid-1990s were far worse even than this Group had suspected when it attracted fire from diplomats and “experts” for reporting fraud by the West’s favourite.
“People power” without foreign support is a feeble force. For instance, “people power” has erupted before in Armenia’s presidential polls. In July, 1996, after Levon Ter Petrossian’s self-proclaimed victory in what were genuinely fraudulent elections, 100,000 demonstrators stormed the parliament building in Yerevan. Only in that case the newly-elected incumbent did not step down and there was no pressure for him to do so from the ‘international community’. Then the US State Department called on the protestors to back off, not the incumbent fraudster who had sent tanks into the streets of Yerevan. Neither the OSCE nor the Council of Europe saw any fraud. When BHHRG observers pointed it out to the OSCE coordinator, he asked for “positive points” to balance their criticisms!
Ter-Petrossian’s successor, the former Karabakhi President, Robert Kocharian, was a great irritant to the West. By reversing his predecessor’s planned concession to Azerbaijan over his homeland he stymied the Western-backed peace plan which would have speeded up the plans to build a trans-Caucasus pipeline. Kocharian has never been forgiven. This is evidenced in the OSCE’s discovery of terrible frauds – almost lifted verbatim from this Group’s reports on the Ter-Petrossian frauds in 1995 and 1996 – in every presidential and parliamentary election since Kocharian came to power.
Whereas under Ter-Petrossian, the short-term observers of the OSCE were briefed to see the positive, under Kocharian they have been prepared for all sorts of shenanigans. If the experts tell you to believe allegations of ballot-stuffing, intimidation, etc., who is a short-term observer on a generous per diem to dispute them or to raise the evidence of their own eyes which might contradict the professionals’ wisdom? And in any case it is much more fun and goes down better with the folks back home to report on the shocking frauds one saw than to tell them lamely that it wasn’t as bad as Florida in 2000 or Scotland in 2007.
With Armenia’s reputation for electoral fraud, it is interesting to note that the little-observed local elections in 2005 passed off without the controversy raised in advance of national polls since 1998, even though control of localities ought to play a big part in building a national power-base in any democracy. It is worth recalling that in 2005, the Council of Europe endorsed the conduct of the local elections. The head of the delegation of European observers, Sean O’Brien, was quoted as saying, “The local elections were generally in keeping with the Council of Europe’s electoral standards. The electoral process was generally satisfactory.”[3] The opposition leaders seem to have waited for bigger Western delegations of observers to come to Armenia before making a stink about fraud.
A factor which ought to promote political stability in Armenia is the country’s homogenous population. Unlike its post-Soviet neighbours, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia is very homogenous with 97% of the population (2,971,000) being ethnic Armenians. However, the position of Armenian minorities beyond its borders is an extremely sensitive issue. Leaving aside the impoverished majority Armenian districts of Georgia, the issues of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian minority in Iran are never far from political minds in Armenia.
For the opposition, joining Euro-Atlantic structures is a priority. Although President Kocharian and his acting premier, Serge Sarksian, who served as Defence Minister, from 2003 until April, have supported Armenia’s membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and permitted Armenia’s armed forces to take part in US-led exercises as well as seeking closer cooperation with the EU and supporting the buy out of Armenia’s few valuable local industries by EU-based companies, the current government in Yerevan has also continued its policy of alliance with Russia. That does not play well in Washington, even if Armenia has only self-interested reasons for cooperating with the Kremlin, for instance to protect the hundreds of thousands of Armenian migrant workers from the kind of expulsions suffered by Georgians after Tbilisi openly sided with the West against Russia.
Iran is another stumbling block in relations between Kocharian and the West. As Washington gears up for conflict with Iran, Armenia cannot overlook both its strategic dependence on Iranian goodwill and the reality that there may be more Armenians living in Iran than in Armenia itself. In the event of a crusade against the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Christian minority, mainly Armenian, will be in tight spot.
Armenians recognise that their Republic is a potential launch pad for “black operations” against Iran by the United States which can call on its large Armenian diaspora to lobby for Yerevan to back America versus Iran, but for Armenians in the country itself as in Karabakh as well cooperating with a military attack on Iran – even one sanctioned by the UN Security Council – is fraught with danger for them themselves. They will have to live next door to Iran afterwards and their co-religionists there may suffer for any Armenian collusion in an attack on Iran.
Part of the political elite in Yerevan (as we shall see) may see the benefits for themselves of cooperation with Washington against Iran as outweighing the damage to the long-term relations with Iranians, but it is unlikely that ordinary Armenians depending on Iranian gas and electricity to a growing extent as well as Iranian trade will be so sanguine. After the years of hardship caused by the blockades of their western, northern and eastern borders over the Karabakh question (and by chaos in Georgia), few ordinary Armenians will welcome cutting off their southern supply route to curry favour with Washington. The West has not got a good record of providing economic benefits to post-Soviet peoples as a whole, preferring to focus its largesse on the political class. It is cheaper to buy the majority of a country’s elite than a majority of the people. Even in small countries like Armenia Marshall Plans cost big dollars while purchasing influence is cheap, even if it makes a few people very rich.

The Shadow of Karabakh

If the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is only one part of the geo-strategic jigsaw in the great Caucasus-Middle East power play for the great powers, the fate of the Armenians there is a central issue in Armenian politics.
Armenia’s refusal to accredit Turkish members of the OSCE delegation highlighted the continuing animosities between Anakara and Yerevan over Karabakh. By refusing to accredit the Turks, Yerevan gave the OSCE a clear ground for criticism of its conduct of the poll before voting began.[4]
Most Western media concentrate on the Genocide issue dating back to 1915. The murder of the Turkish Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, highlighted the sensitivity of the issue inside Turkey and the passions aroused there. But for post-Soviet Armenia, the bulk of whose citizens are not descended from people subject to deportation in 1915 because their territory was already under Russian control, it is Turkey’s attitude to the Nagorno-Karabakh question which shapes relations between Ankara and Yerevan.
Despite the fact that Turkish products like Efes beer are widely available in Armenia, being imported via Georgia or Iran, Turkey’s blockade of the common border between the two states remains the main bilateral bone of contention. The Nagorno-Karabakh question divides the two states as well, since Turkey supports Azerbaijan’s claims to what Armenians call “Artsakh” as its sovereign territory. Armenians point out the inconsistency in Turkey’s foreign policy since Anakara acknowledges the independence of Northern Cyprus, despite the refusal of the rest of the international community to recognise the breakaway region, while Turkey adamantly insists on the restoration of Azeri sovereignty over Karabakh.
Unlike the other unrecognised breakaway territories in the former Soviet space – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which reject Georgian sovereignty, and Transnistria which rejects Moldova’s sovereignty – Karabakh does not seek unification with Russia. Although Karabakhi Armenians are pro-Russian, in so far as they would renounce their self-proclaimed independence, it would be for integration in Armenia itself.
De facto, Armenia and Karabakh constitute a single political, military and economic space. The fact that both Armenia’s President, Robert Kocharian, and her acting Prime Minister, Serge Sarksian, are Karabakhis shows how intertwined the two Armenian entities are. The intimate links between the Kartabakhis and Armenia were further illustrated when it was reported the NK Army chief, Sevran Ohranian, would become Armenia’s own chief of staff on 3rd May.[5] Maybe the opposition hopes to play on a resentment of the over-representation of Karabakhis in Yerevan’s government but it has been the case before without harming Kocharian’s position. An opposition electoral victory, either in the parliamentary elections or next year’s presidential elections would serve to weaken or even break that knot.
Already Azeri President, Ilham Aliev, has stirred up internal recriminations in Armenia by claiming that he knows that Armenia will make concessions over Karabakh. Maybe Mr Aliev was just trying to boost his own position at home because the tragic plight of hundreds of thousands of Azeri refugees from Karabakh and Armenia itself living in squalor in an “oil-rich” state could be mobilised against him by his own internal opposition.[6]
In the promotion of pipeline and transport links across the South Caucasus, Armenia has lost out to Azerbaijan. Isolated south of Georgia which has recurrent border, customs and transport disputes with Russia, and boycotted by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia is effectively isolated from its northern ally, Russia. Whereas Azerbaijan has been courted by the West both for access to its own oil and gas resources and for its position as a transit point for Central Asian oil via the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline which by-passes Armenia by wending its way through Georgia to Turkey, Armenia has been rejected as a route both for the oil pipeline and the new rail route from Turkey to Azerbaijan. The implication of these Western-backed decisions is that Armenia can only really gain access to the outside world if it softens its stance on Karabakh’s independence from Azerbaijan, and by implication shifts into the NATO camp away from Russia – and Iran with whom war, or at least a US-led bombing campaign looms over Teheran’s refusal to bow to UN demands on the nuclear issue. But abandoning Karabakh is easier said than done.
Although the motives of the murderers of Karen Demirchian, Vazgen Sarkisian, and the other anti-Kocharian leaders of the parliamentary majority in October, 1999, have never been satisfactorily revealed, the suspicion that the dead politicians were willing and even about to do a deal with Azerbaijan watering down Karabakh’s sovereignty are the most plausible explanations. The chief assassin accused them of corruption, too. This was widely-acknowledged. Who – outside the Western media and Western-funded NGOs portraying him as a selfless patriot – would doubt that a former Communist Party boss like Karen Demirchian could have acquired his Mercedes from saving his rouble salary? But it was the willingness of Demirchian and his allies to revive the policy of concessions which had done so much to undermine Ter-Petrossian before his fall in 1998 which seems to have been fatal for them.
The Karabakh Question could still provoke violence both on the ceasefire line separating Armenian and Azeri forces and inside Armenia.

By Mark Almond


[1] Azerbaijan failed to have its own “Orange Revolution” in November, 2005, despite opposition cries of foul, but the hereditary President, Ilham Aliev, wisely has large oil and natural gas reserves which temper the international community’s enthusiasm for upheaval – and enable him to provide a modicum of fringe benefits to enough Azeris to calm them.
[2] See http://www.eurasianet.org/armenia/
.
[3] See http://www.armenialiberty.org/press/press/en/2005/10/8F96B44F-8FAD-401A-9D1E-EC6A413773D0.asp
.
[4] See http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/5/90fffb57-35b5-41e5-a2ec-39ddd5e06c11.html
.
[5] See RG, “NEW ARMENIAN ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF ANNOUNCED” RFE/RL Newsletter (3rd May, 2007)
[6] See http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/05/34d0aa14-606d-48f4-b032-1579fbdc9c79.html.

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