Russian expert on the South Caucasus Vigen Akopyan has answered EADaily correspondent Lia Khojoyan’s questions concerning political processes in Armenia.
On Apr 9, 2018, the second term of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan expired but he will continue to rule the country as prime minister. What can you say about the past decade in Armenia? Has Mr. Sargsyan managed to keep his pre-election promise to leave “a strong and developed Armenia” behind him?
As you have mentioned in your question, Sargsyan will continue to rule the country, so, instead of analyzing what he has left behind, we better talk about what he has left to his party and his own self.
Concerning his promise to make Armenia strong and developed, we can say that under Sargsyan, the country avoided big internal political crises. The regime was strong enough - especially its military component - while the other political players tried to play by the rules and did not call for revolutions - as some of their colleagues used to do under Sargsyan’s predecessors. In other words, Armenia has developed immunity against “color technologies” and has managed to convert the revolutionary ardor of its smartest oppositionists into pragmatic activity to solve national or private tasks. Unlike Ukraine, Armenia does not have hundreds or thousands oppositionists all over the country but just a few dozens and it was easy for the regime to neutralize them.
Sargsyan’s regime has managed to organize the systemic opposition and put down its ambitions by publicly lashing the leader of the second biggest parliamentary force. Sargsyan managed to turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic with a stable political framework. Time will show whether this internal parity will survive external challenges or not.
As far as “democracy” is concerned, even Europe and the United States no longer care for it. I am sorry to say that but today the world is preparing for wars rather than development. Consequently, much will depend on what will happen on the other major front of Armenian reality, Nagorno-Karabakh, where much has changed over the last decade. I, first of all, mean the balance of forces – a process Serzh Sargyan appears to have no influence on.
I would like to remind you that the April 2016 instability in Nagorno-Karabakh coincided with the climax of the confrontation between Russia and Turkey. Obviously, Turkey has huge influence on Azerbaijan and its policy in the South Caucasus strongly depends on its relations with Russia. Now that Turkey is having contradictions with the United States over Syria, we can witness its rapprochement with Russia and Iran. The events in Syria are having some indirect effects on the atmosphere in Nagorno-Karabakh. After their trilateral talks, the Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders generally meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh problem with him. This situation is dangerous for Armenia as it is turning the country into an object rather than a subject of the regional game. In order to be on the safe side of it, Armenia is trying to develop its dialogue with the West and by doing it, it is making the regional “chess game” even more complicated.
In this light, we can say that Sargsyan has inherited from his own self all the risks he faced when he first came into power in Armenia. So, whether the results of the April war will be intermediate or final will depend on how Russia, Turkey and Iran will develop their political dialogue and how effective Armenia will be in protecting and pushing its interests within that regional framework.
In short, two terms have proved not enough for Sargsyan not only to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict but even to stabilize the situation on that front – even though, according to the OSCE MG mediators, he may have such a chance as Prime Minister in very near future.
And, of course, we cannot but mention Sargsyan’s foreign political initiatives to normalize relations with Turkey and to integrate into the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union. I think that three factors helped Sargsyan out of this current: he craved for peace, he had no excessive ambitions and he was lucky. The key problem with the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement was the failure of the United States as a mediator: the Americans failed to pressure the Turks into complying with the Zurich protocols. It is not for me to judge if that was a success or a fiasco. I just suggest watching what is going on in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish provinces and how Turkey is spreading its influence over Georgia.
On the other hand, Armenia has defied the EU’s ultimatum and joined the Eurasian Economic Union. As a result, we can see some favorable tendencies in trade and economy: a jump in exports, a growth in tourism and construction, better conditions for Armenian labor migrants in Russia. Unlike Ukraine, who has barricaded its front door and is now breathing through a small European vent pane, Armenia has joined the Eurasian Economic Union but has left its European window wide open by signing with the EU an association agreement that has no anti-Russian trade component. In security, Armenia continues to be Russia’s strategic military ally, which under current geopolitical circumstances implies not only benefits and guarantees but also serious risks and responsibilities.
Thus, as far as Armenia’s foreign policy is concerned, Sargsyan has inherited from his own self exactly what he was expected to inherit – serious geopolitical risks. They are not making Armenia stronger but require it to be stronger.
According to official statistics, since the early 2000s, Armenia has experienced quite hard times: over 300,000 people have left the country over the last decade, the birth rate has dropped, the unemployment rate is as high as 29%, the external debt has exceeded $5bn. What should we expect from Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister and should we expect any social-economic improvements at all?
I think that the decisive factor for emigrants today is not the development of Armenia but the development of the countries they are going to. Rich relatives abroad are drawing people out of Armenia like a magnet and unless the Republican Party ensures certain social-economic progress, its future is quite vague – for along with full authority, it has shouldered full responsibility for the future of its people. Obviously, emigration is more a strategic rather than purely demographic problem for Armenia, especially as the country is in constant need of conscripts for the smoldering Nagorno-Karabakh war.
The dropping birth rate and the growing poverty rate are the result of strong social stratification, when with a budget of several billion USD, we have several billionaires who are or were responsible for it.
What should we expect from Serzh Sargsyan? I think we should expect him to take decisive steps to consolidate the nation and to use its economic, creative and military capacities. This requires active interaction between Armenia and Diaspora and higher efficiency from the Diaspora Ministry. Without a groundbreaking national project, Armenia is doomed to regional isolation and poor life. But we should not only take something from Diaspora but also try to help it to solve the problems of Armenians living abroad.
Armenia’s heart should beat not for its own self only but should pump new blood into the arterial system of the global Armenian community.
What do you think about the factor of Karen Karapetyan? Many people expected him to fight for the post of prime minister…
It was a PR illusion. Karapetyan’s original and bright personality has livened up Armenia’s dull political atmosphere and has thereby helped the Republican Party and Serzh Sargsyan to stay in power. As prime minister, Karapetyan has brought about certain improvements in administrative discipline and economic performance, but he was not meant for more. It seems that he is one of those whom Sargsyan sees as future leaders of Armenia. But just like the old leaders, the young ones will have to fight for power and to adjust themselves to realities to be imposed by different geopolitical centers.
Interviewed by Lia Khojoyan