ISOLATED NATION IN A SEA OF INSTABILITY PUTS ITS DEMOCRACY TO THE TEST
Tony Halpin in Yerevan
Sources: Forbes Rich list; amazon.com ; The William Saroyan Society;
May 12, 2007
Ballot-Stuffing And Vote-Rigging Have Discredited Past Elections.
This Time Armenia Knows It Must Get It Right
Fifteen years after it regained independence from the Soviet Union,
the tiny Caucasus republic of Armenia faces its most important test
as a democracy.
Ballot-stuffing and fraud have characterised previous elections in
this impoverished country of 3.2 million. The international community
has made clear it will not tolerate a repeat in today’s parliamentary
Aid to the Yerevan Government, worth hundreds of millions of pounds,
is at risk if international observers judge that the elections have
been neither free nor fair.
Washington has tied the prospect of $235 million (Â£120 million) to
clean elections. The EU has raised doubts about Armenia’s involvement
in its European Neighbourhood Policy if results are rigged again.
Despite annual economic growth that has hit double digits in the past
six years, the impact of aid cuts would be felt hard in a country
where close to a third of the population survive on about Â£1 a day.
And yet opposition parties say that the corruption in these elections,
although more subtle than before, has been just as pervasive. Several
have already announced plans for street demonstrations tomorrow,
convinced that the results will be rigged.
Spread out in the valley below Biblical Mount Ararat, Armenia claims
a rich history stretching back to the beginnings of civilisation. It
was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion in
301. But its postSoviet history has been marked by economic collapse,
war, a crippling earthquake and mass emigration.
Neighbouring Georgia became the West’s democratic darling when the
Rose Revolution in 2003 swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power, soon
after the last parliamentary elections in Armenia that were widely
condemned as fraudulent.
Today’s elections are a test for Serge Sargsyan, the Prime Minister,
and his ambition to succeed Robert Kocharyan as President next year. Mr
Sargsyan, with a background in the secret services and the military
as well as being a former Defence Minister, was seen as the country’s
most powerful figure long before he became acting prime minister on
the sudden death of his predecessor, Andranik Margarian, in March.
He knows that he must repair his country’s battered image at a
critical moment for its international reputation. In an interview
with The Times, the Prime Minister, whose softly spoken, almost
reticent demeamour, belies the extent of his control of the country,
expressed confidence that the elections would be the "best in the
history of independent Armenia", but acknowledged that a failure to
deliver clean results would be costly.
"It will be very bad. The political power that forms a government
will be a weak one that doesn’t enjoy the trust of the people and it
will not have confidence in dealing with its international partners,"
Such international partners are critical for a landlocked country
whose every border is afflicted by instability or diplomatic conflict.
Armenia is in talks to settle the 19-year conflict with neighbouring
Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Mr
Sargsyan, like Mr Kocharyan, is from Karabakh, and played a central
role in organising military forces that eventually routed the Azeri
Turkey closed its border with Armenia more than a dozen years ago as
a gesture of support for Azerbaijan. Ankara also refuses to establish
diplomatic relations because of Yerevan’s campaign for international
recognition of the genocide of more than one million Armenians by
Ottoman Turkey in 1915.
Armenia depends on Georgia and Iran for access to outside markets. But
Russia ‘s border with Georgia has been closed since October in a row
over spying, and Armenia fears its economy would be almost completely
isolated if international pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions,
particularly from the US, leads to an economic embargo.
Armenia has received $1.6 billion from the US since 1992, making it
one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid per capita,
thanks mainly to its influential diaspora. Iran is a major trading
partner and a vital source of gas supplies.
"A deterioration in American-Iranian relations is a very undesirable
development for us. We are concerned not only because Iran is our
way to the outside world but also because of our economic cooperation
. . . all of this would be in jeopardy," Mr Sarkisyan said.
His Republican party is expected to emerge as the largest in the
131-seat parliament, which it controlled in coalition with two other
groups after the 2003 elections. Its principal rival this time is
Prosperous Armenia, a party established only a year ago by Gagik
Tsarukyan, a millionaire businessman and former world arm-wrestling
Mr Kocharyan encouraged the burly oligarch to set up his party,
apparently to draw support away from opposition groups. Critics have
repeatedly accused Mr Tsarukyan’s team of buying votes, but he also
seems increasingly popular with ordinary Armenians who admire his
muscular physique and business acumen.
About 5,000 cheered him at a final campaign rally in his home town of
Abovian, a bleak community about 15 miles outside the capital. Many
had been drawn to the event by the offer of lottery tickets to a draw
for prizes that included a car, televisions and dvd players.
Mr Tsarukyan told the crowd that he was a man of action not words
and that he would not be making "empty promises like those other
politicians". His assistant underlined his style by announcing:
"We are not buying your votes, we want clean elections. But because
Mr Tsarukyan has a good heart, he is giving two ambulances to the
The 2003 elections sparked street protests that were broken up
violently by police. Several opposition parties boycotted parliament,
arguing that it was illegitimate.
This time round, opposition leaders say that teachers and other
public employees have been threatened with the sack unless they
support the ruling party, while television stations, which are under
strong official influence, have been heavily biased in favour of
pro-Government candidates. TV advertising rates have risen sharply.
Others have alleged dirty tricks. The Rule of Law Party, seen as
one of the more serious opposition contenders, complained that its
telephones were being tapped by the Armenian National Security Service.
An attempt was made to discredit party leader Artur Baghdasaryan
when a newspaper close to the authorities published excerpts
from a clandestine recording of a restaurant meeting between Mr
Baghdasaryan and a senior British diplomat. President Kocharyan
accused Mr Baghdasaryan of "treason" for comments on the tape urging
the international community to declare the elections unfair.
Mr Baghdasaryan, a former Speaker of Parliament who now opposes the
regime, said: "I have always said that Armenia has international
commitments and if it doesn’t respect them then there should be a
reaction. The traitors of our country are the ones who rig elections.
"Serious grounds have been created for falsifying the results this
time because the inequalities in the campaign have been so great that
there is no possibility for fair competition.
"We have been ready to tolerate all this, but at least let the election
day be fair. If there are irregularities then we will go out on to
the streets to struggle for our political rights."
— Cher, real name Cherilyn Sarkisian, is of Armenian extraction. She
travelled to the country to support relief workers after the
devastating earthquake in 1988
— Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American investor with a fortune
estimated at $10 billion (Â£5 billion), played a central role in
shaping Las Vegas
— William Saroyan (1908-81), the son of Armenian immigrants, wrote
Pulitzer prizewinning plays and stories of American life in the
— Garry Kasparov, below, was born to an Armenian mother in Baku,
Azerbaijan, in 1963. The one-time world chess champion is a political
opponent of President Putin
— Jack Kevorkian, voluntary euthanasia advocate, was born to Armenian
parents. Currently imprisoned in Michigan for second-degree murder
of a patient whose suicide he assisted
— Aram Khachaturian (1903-78), the composer of symphonies, ballets
and the famous Sword Dance, was born to Armenian parents in Georgia