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Armenia: Pressure Mounts For 'Clean' Elections

  • Richard Giragosian

(RFE/RL) March 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's parliamentary elections, set for May 12, constitute an important test of the country's commitment to participatory democracy and political reform. They assume particular significance in light of Armenia's often troubled and tainted electoral record over the past decade.

But these elections will also have broader implications, both for Armenia's relations with its neighbors, and for its wider foreign policy. To some extent, the election of a new Armenian parliament seems similar to previous ballots, with competition defined more by party rivalries among pro-government ruling elites than by any serious policy alternatives espoused by the country's fractured opposition.
The May ballot differs significantly from previous elections in two key
respects: scrutiny will be more intense, and expectations for a clean
vote -- both within Armenia and abroad -- are far higher.


But the May ballot differs significantly from previous elections in two key respects: scrutiny will be more intense, and expectations for a clean vote -- both within Armenia and abroad -- are far higher. Consequently, the impact of this election on the trajectory of Armenian foreign policy, and by extension on the future of the country, will derive not so much from the composition of the new parliament as from the extent to which the election meets, or fails to meet, desired standards of fairness.

Confronting Isolation

If the ballot proves to be only the latest in a series of flawed and tainted elections, the international response is likely to be both serious and swift. And in that case, the elections will go down in history not just as another lost opportunity for the development of real democracy in Armenia, but as a move toward further regional isolation.

Armenia already has to contend with closed borders, trade embargoes, and exclusion from nearly all regional development projects, including the planned Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku rail link. Even with an impressive record of double-digit economic growth, Armenia still desperately needs greater connectivity and closer integration with the globalized marketplace.

The May 12 elections will be the first national ballot since Armenia signed its Action Plan with the European Union, thereby officially committing itself to the European "standards and values" inherent in the new European Neighborhood Policy. Visiting Armenia in early March, EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby openly warned Armenian officials that any problems with the election would be a "lost opportunity" for a "firm relationship" between Yerevan and Brussels.

Such strong language suggests that seriously flawed elections could result in a setback to the country's evolving relationship with the EU, thereby undermining Armenia's position within the framework of the new EU plans for engagement in the region.

International Pressure

Armenia would also be further outpaced in a region that already shows signs of division and disparity. Neighboring Georgia is already moving much faster and closer to Europe, while Azerbaijan by virtue of its Caspian hydrocarbon reserves is of increasing strategic interest to an EU that is seeking to reduce its dependence on Russian gas imports.

EU envoy Semneby warned of a "lost opportunity" (RFE/RL file photo)

Armenia's status as a beneficiary of the Millennium Challenge Account, a new U.S. foreign aid program that imposes important new prerequisites of democracy and electoral performance, could similarly be jeopardized if international observers rate the May 12 ballot as less than free, fair, transparent, and democratic. In that case, even Armenia's politically active diaspora would be hard-pressed to contain and overcome the ensuing damage to the country's relationship with the United States.

Those ties are long-standing but cautious. Armenia has sought to avoid any expansion in ties that could be perceived as upsetting or threatening its deeper and more prized strategic relationship with Russia. Because of this, any deterioration in U.S.-Armenian ties would only be exacerbated by the already limited scope of their bilateral relations.

The international community's higher expectations for a clean vote are defined both by the objective need for improvements in Armenia's tainted electoral record and by growing impatience over the far-too-gradual development of democracy in the country.

The questionable constitutional referendum in late 2005, coming as it did after years of international assistance, has led to a new reassessment and questioning of the sincerity of the Armenian government's commitment to democracy. In this sense, the international community will no longer be as patient or passive in the face of yet another flawed election in Armenia.

Regional Significance

At the same time, the international community itself also faces a degree of pressure and expectation. The international response to the Armenian elections will be watched intently, as the Armenian contest is only the first in a cycle of both parliamentary and presidential elections in all three South Caucasus states in 2007-08.

Regardless of the outcome of the May 12 elections, there are likely to be few if any changes in current policies, including participation in the ongoing talks mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Armenian political elite has become far too entrenched, and has too much of a vested interest in the status quo, to risk disturbing the slumbering apathy of Armenian society.

The real pivot for the Karabakh peace process may lie with next year's Azerbaijani presidential election. Although many consider the reelection of incumbent President Ilham Aliyev a foregone conclusion, there is some degree of optimism that with such a newfound degree of legitimacy, Aliyev may come to see a breakthrough on this "frozen" conflict as an appealing way to overcome the overbearing shadow of his late father and predecessor.

Yet that optimism should be qualified by the acknowledgement that neither side has adequately prepared its population for a Karabakh peace deal that would entail substantive concessions.
RFE/RL Caucasus Report


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