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Armenia: Constitutional reform and regional conflicts dictate the agenda

Experts from Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) countries have lately met at Chernyshevsky Saratov State University (SSU) on sidelines of the meeting of the Russian-Kazakh Expert IQ-Club. The topic of the meeting was “Transformation of the political system in EEU countries in new economic conditions.”

The event was organized by a Saratov-based Eurasia-Povolzhye Information and Analysis Center and the Scientific and Educational Center for CIS and Baltic States at the SSU. The co-organizers were the Analytical Center at the Library of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation (Astana, Kazakhstan) and “Workshop of Eurasian Ideas” Scientific Research Fund (Saratov, Russia).

EADaily’s political analyst Hayk Khalatyan attended the event. In his report “The Republic of Armenia: Constitutional Reform and Regional Conflicts Dictate the Agenda,” Khalatyan presented Armenia’s foreign and domestic policy priorities.

Armenia is preparing for 2017

After the Armenian opposition failed to prevent the Constitutional Reform, all the political forces in Armenia started preparing for the parliamentary elections of 2017. Following the constitutional referendum of December 6 2015, the upcoming parliamentary elections, not the presidential one of 2018, will determine the power landscape in Armenia and those responsible for the country’s foreign policy of the coming years.

Most Armenian experts and mass media, let alone the opposition, are sure that President Serzh Sargsyan and the ruling Republic Party of Armenia (RPA) pushed through the constitutional amendments to retain their grip on power. It is noteworthy that while preparing for the constitutional reform, the authorities ousted Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) - the second largest political force – from the political arena fully discrediting the traditional opposition.

Thanks to the brilliant “combination of steps” by the incumbent president (Serzh Sargsyan is the president of the Chess Federation of Armenia and a big chess lover), RPA’s victory at the upcoming elections is beyond doubt. The main efforts will be towards legitimization of the election result.

Meantime, the opposition has faced a dilemma: either cooperate with the authorities and get seats in the future parliament (coalition of ARFD Party with RPA) or try to enter the parliament independently. It is obvious that some parliamentary opposition forces either will fail to overcome the threshold to the parliament or will lose most of their seats in the parliament. As for the PAP that has the second largest faction in the parliament, the number of its deputies will decrease dramatically at best.

Paradox of the Armenian opposition

Generally, the Armenian opposition is in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the public is extremely discontented at the authorities for their failure to settle the social and economic problems in the country. On the other hand, the opposition cannot use that discontent for lack of strong leaders.

New opposition leaders are emerging in the political field of Armenia: Nikol Pashinyan, Zaruhi Postanjyan and others. However, it is not clear if they will manage to enlist enough public support by the elections of 2017.

They can take advantage of the current negative trends in Armenia’s economy caused by the problems in the Russian economy, which it is closely connected with, and the sliding global prices of energy resources that will probably continue in the current year as well. In 2015, the commodity turnover of Armenia fell by 20.6% as compared to 2014, private money transfers fell 30.1% or $520 million for the same period. One of the consequences of the economic problems is migration – for the first time since 1978, the population of Armenia went below 3 million people.

As the incumbent authorities advocate for the Eurasian integration, a new actor will emerge in the political field of Armenia – a new political party created by Ara Abramyan, President of the Union of Armenians of Russia – if he risks running for the parliament. In this light, many political parties are likely to take the opposite side and criticize Armenia’s participation in the Eurasian integration. They will probably use the fact that Armenia has not received the benefits it anticipated from the EEU membership, preferring not to notice that Armenia is closely connected with Russia’s economy and would feel its problems even without aligning with the EEU.

A new power landscape in the South Caucasus

As for the foreign policy of Armenia, it greatly depends on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the problems with Turkey and Azerbaijan acting in a tandem. However, a range of events that happened at the end of 2015 such as the Russian-Turkish crisis, the lifting of sanctions against Iran, the emerging union of Moscow and Tehran, are changing the political landscape in the South Caucasus creating new opportunities for Armenia.

For instance, the close relations of Azerbaijan and Turkey create a negative field for the Russian-Azerbaijani relations. Earlier, when Moscow and Ankara actively developed their economic cooperation, Russia preferred not to notice (at least publicly) the close relationships of Baku and Ankara in the military, political and economic fields.

However, after Turkey shot down the Russian Su-24 over Syria and started threatening with large-scale war against Russia and Iran in case of intervention with the Syrian conflict, Moscow had to display more respect for the interests of its only military-political ally in the South Caucasus, including in its relations with Azerbaijan. After all, Armenia is so far the only ally of Russia in the CSTO and EEU to express its definite support to Moscow in the conflict with Turkey.

The Kremlin would hardly miss Ilham Aliyev’s words at the meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Baku three days after downing the Russian warplane: “Turkey and Azerbaijan are the closest countries in the world.” Neither would Kremlin ignore his statement at the December meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Baku: “Turkish-Azerbaijani unity and policy play a stabilizing role in the region. Because, unfortunately, the stability in the region has been violated, and risks have emerged. We have to stand ready to all these challenges and we do stand ready. Naturally, the stronger Turkey is, the more Azerbaijan’s strength will grow.”

In this light, Armenia gets a chance to play a more important role in the region, to get out of the regional isolation Azerbaijan and Turkey have driven it into with the help of Georgia. The first steps towards overcoming that isolation have been made already, as Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran are keen to cooperate in the energy field. In particular, they weigh new sources of gas supply to Georgia, which will diminish Baku’s influence on Tbilisi dramatically and have a positive impact on the Armenian-Georgian relations.

The Armenian government should not miss the chance and, for instance, start lobbying for establishment of a free trade area between the EEU and Iran and stepping up the efforts to development the country’s economy.

So far, implementation of the infrastructure development projects of strategic importance for Armenia - construction of a new NPP and Armenia-Iran railway - remains uncertain. Now, despite the interest in these projects, the financial capacities of Russia are extremely limited and it will be impossible to launch the construction of the Armenia-Iran railway without other investors, and China, first.

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