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Opposition leaders Raffi Hovannisian (left), Seyran Ohanian (center), and Vartan Oskanian speak to reporters in Yerevan on March 31. Their bloc has affirmed its readiness to form a coalition with any political force capable of bringing about real changes, but not with the HHK.

The template that has emerged in Armenia over the past 20 years for the conduct of parliamentary elections is unedifying. With a few exceptions, clearly thought-through policies have been eclipsed by superficial rhetoric, and the appeal of individual politicians is such that they tend to carry greater weight with voters than do the parties they head.

At the same time, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has clung to power since the early 2000s despite its failure to create the foundations for economic prosperity, a feat many disenchanted voters are convinced reflects the ever more sophisticated abuse of technology and "administrative resources" to falsify the outcome of the voting in its favor.

The ballot scheduled for April 2 largely conforms to that template. The electoral campaign has been marked by a string of violent incidents in which at least six people, most of them affiliated with opposition parties, have been injured. True, the HHK reached agreement last year with the parliamentary opposition on amendments to the electoral code intended to preclude fraud, in particular multiple voting, and succeeded in securing some $10 million in funding from the United States and the European Union to finance such measures as electronic verification of voters' identity and live online broadcasts of voting in a majority of polling stations.

Those measures have failed to restore voters' confidence, however. The independent daily Hraparak commented on March 22 that "no matter how clean the elections are, nobody will believe that they were not rigged."

Just days later, the NGO Union of Informed Citizens claimed that school principals across the country have been ordered to pressure teaching staff and students' parents to cast their ballots for the HHK. The ruling party has also sought to bribe voters by offering financial incentives, according to opposition Armenian National Congress Deputy Chairman Levon Zurabian.

Those reported irregularities impelled the U.S. Embassy and the EU representation in Yerevan to issue a joint statement on March 29 expressing concern at "allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office responded by announcing that all but five of the 45 election-related complaints it has received have proved unfounded.

In one key respect, however, this election is different, insofar as it is being conducted under a new election law and will pave the way for the transition in 2018 from a semipresidential to a parliamentary republic. Once incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian's second term in office ends next year, constitutional amendments passed in a controversial referendum in December 2015 that transfer most presidential prerogatives to the prime minister will take effect. That scheduled transition only serves to reinforce the widely held conviction that the HHK will again resort to every trick in the book to ensure it retains control of the new legislature, and thus the right to appoint the prime minister.

The new election system is abstruse and complex, to the point that it is not clear precisely how many lawmakers in addition to the minimum 101 will be elected. The parliament previously numbered 131 lawmakers; in the previous two elections (2007 and 2012) 90 of them were elected under the proportional system and 41 in single-mandate constituencies.

Under the new system, deputies will be elected under a two-tier proportional system, meaning that voters will designate their preference from both a single nationwide list that comprises the five political parties and four electoral blocs that registered to participate, and for individual candidates in 13 regional electoral districts. In addition, four mandates are guaranteed for representatives of the country's four largest ethnic minorities (Yezidis, Russians, Assyrians, and Kurds).

Parties must garner a minimum of 5 percent of the vote, and blocs 7 percent, to qualify for parliamentary representation. A party or bloc must poll a "stable majority," defined as 54 percent of the vote, in order to form a government. If no coalition can be formed within six days after the results are finalized, a runoff between the two parties or blocs that polled the largest number of votes will be held on April 30.

The five individual parties registered are:

-- Republican Party of Armenia (HHK)

-- Communist Party of Armenia

-- Free Democrats

-- Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, which was a junior coalition partner of the HHK from 2007 to early 2009, and again since early 2016

-- Armenian Revival Party, the successor to former National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian's Country of Law party (Orinats Yerkir), which was also a former junior coalition member. It has not ruled out again forming a coalition with the HHK, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Stepan Demirchian, the head of the People's Party of Armenia, which has insisted on a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the prerequisite for economic development.
Stepan Demirchian, the head of the People's Party of Armenia, which has insisted on a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the prerequisite for economic development.

The four blocs are:

-- Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress and the People's Party of Armenia headed by Stepan Demirchian. That opposition alliance claims that in recent days its support has increased substantially, primarily as a result of its insistence on a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the prerequisite for economic development.

-- Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BHK), which is headed by wealthy businessman/philanthropist Gagik Tsarukian, and several smaller groups. The BHK was a junior coalition partner from 2007-2012 but declined to join the new government formed after the May 2012 parliamentary election in which it emerged as the second-largest parliament faction. The HHK and the Central Election Commission have warned Tsarukian against violating the law by providing financial assistance to voters. He has pledged that unnamed foreign business partners are ready to invest up to $15 billion in Armenia in the event of a BHK election victory -- more than the country's annual GDP.

-- Yelk (Way Out), a pro-Western alliance comprising the Civil Contract party of former journalist Nikol Pashinian; Bright Armenia, which is headed by Edmon Marukian; and Hanrapetutiun (Republic), whose chairman Aram Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) served as prime minister from November 1999-May 2000. The bloc opposes Armenia's membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and has pledged to seek an Association Agreement with the EU. It also advocates a crackdown on corruption and a drastic reduction of the government bureaucracy. Its support comes primarily from young urban Armenians.

-- The Ohanian-Raffi-Oskanian bloc headed by former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and former Foreign Ministers Raffi Hovannisian and Vartan Oskanian.

The bloc suffered a major setback one week ago when Samvel Babaian, a former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and one of its most prominent supporters, was arrested and charged with trying to smuggle a portable shoulder-launched ground-to-air missile into Armenia from Georgia. The bloc's leaders have denounced that accusation as politically motivated and cited it as grounds for demanding President Sarkisian's resignation and that the HHK be excluded from the vote.

The bloc opposes making any concessions to Azerbaijan in the ongoing search for a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict. Its leaders have affirmed their readiness to form a coalition with any political force capable of bringing about real changes, but not with the HHK. Oskanian told some 4,000 supporters in Yerevan on March 28 that if elected, the bloc will make every effort to ensure that, within six months, Armenia is recognized as one of the world's 15 most democratic countries.

Armenian Prime Minister and First Vice President of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia Karen Karapetian
Armenian Prime Minister and First Vice President of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia Karen Karapetian

The big question thus remains whether the HHK will succeed in polling the 54 percent of the vote that would empower it to form a government independently. (In 2012, it polled 48.8 percent.) The most recent opinion poll by Russia's leading state pollster, VTsIOM, suggested that the HHK would receive 44 percent of the vote and the Tsarukian bloc 36 percent, with only two or three other parties or groups, including Yelk, likely to qualify for parliamentary representation. (Pashinian told journalists on March 30 that according to "our analysis and forecasts," if those voters who have expressed support for Yelk do cast their ballots for it, the bloc will enter parliament, as will the HHK and Tsarukian's bloc.)

HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov nonetheless expressed confidence on March 29 that "the people will authorize the Republicans to form the next government on their own or together with their coalition partners," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has consistently sought to block successive bills drafted by his own party.

On March 27, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili signed into law a package of legislation intended to formalize mechanisms to preclude abuse of the technical capacity to monitor and record electronic communications for security purposes, and which he had vetoed one week earlier.

The Georgian parliament promptly overturned that veto, whereupon the Constitutional Court rejected Margvelashvili's rationale that certain provisions of the various bills are unconstitutional. Margvelashvili refuses to admit defeat, however: according to his parliamentary secretary Ana Dolidze, he will continue to liaise with those groups that are determined to have the law amended.

The ruling Georgian Dream coalition inherited a toxic legacy when it came to power in late 2012: thousands of illicit recordings made by the security services under the previous government. Accordingly, one of the priorities of the new parliament was the passage of legislation that would put an end to that practice. The standoff between Margvelashvili and the parliament, in which Georgian Dream has a constitutional majority, focuses primarily on how to guarantee the independence of the agency responsible for conducting electronic eavesdropping.

The signing of the legislative package marks the culmination of almost three years of disagreement during which Margvelashvili has consistently sought to block successive bills drafted by Georgian Dream. In May 2014, the Georgian parliament passed in the first reading a package of bills intensifying the oversight of electronic surveillance by the Interior Ministry, which under former President Mikheil Saakashvili is widely believed to have routinely violated the law in its surveillance and harassment of suspected political opponents. That package nonetheless preserved the security services' unfettered access to telecommunications service providers' networks.

Georgian Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili appealed that provision in the Constitutional Court as incompatible with the right to inviolability of private life. At the same time, a group of NGOs including the Georgian Young Lawyers Association and Transparency International -- Georgia drafted an alternative bill stripping the Interior Ministry of its right of access to telecom operators' servers and introducing a so-called "two-key system" under which that right of access would separately be granted by the telecoms operators themselves and by the judiciary.

Professor of information policy and technology law Joseph Canatacci, who advised on the drafting of that alternative bill, was quoted by the news portal Civil.ge as saying that while such a model was not a 100 percent guarantee against unauthorized phone-tapping, it was better than the existing system. He explained that "there should be more than one 'key'; the second key should be held by somebody else other than the Ministry of Interior, and the second key should be used [for] a verification of the judicial warrant. So the way the system would work is: when a judicial warrant is issued, authorizing surveillance, then the Ministry of Interior uses its first key and then the second ['key' holder] institution -- that could be a private [telecom] service provider, or an oversight agency -- would use the second 'key."'

Then-Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, himself a former interior minister, nonetheless opposed that model on the grounds that Georgia's three largest telecoms operators are all foreign-owned and to empower them to grant access posed an unnecessary threat to national security.

Parliament duly voted in late October 2014 to extend until February 28, 2015, the deadline for deciding on the access question. It then came up with an amended bill incorporating the "two-key" proposal, with one "key" being activated by the Interior Ministry and the second by the Personal Data Protection Inspector's office.

Parliament passed that bill in the first reading in late November 2014, voting down an alternative model drafted by the Republican Party (a member of the Georgian Dream coalition) under which the second "key" would have been held by the Georgian National Communication Commission, instead of the data-protection authority. Margvelashvili promptly vetoed the government-sponsored bill, but lawmakers overrode his veto on November 30.

In response to Nanuashvili's appeal and a second one by NGOs, the Constitutional Court ruled in April 2016 that preserving the Interior Ministry's unrestricted access to telecoms operators' networks was indeed unconstitutional. The court therefore called on the legislature to draft new surveillance regulations by March 31, 2017.

It was only in January 2017, however, that the parliament established an ad hoc working group , which included representatives of the NGOs that had lobbied against the existing model, that was tasked with doing so. Contrary to the United National Movement's prediction that Georgian Dream would never condone depriving the Interior Ministry of its surveillance function, that working group duly proposed establishing a new Operative-Technical Agency subordinate to the State Security Service. That new agency would be empowered to monitor telephone and Internet communications and to conduct audio and video surveillance. Its head would be appointed by the prime minister, and the parliament, the Supreme Court, the Personal Data Protection Office and the Prosecutor-General's Office would jointly oversee its operations.

The NGOs continued, however, to argue that the new proposal did not meet the Constitutional Court's stipulation insofar as the new agency would not be independent, but subordinate to the State Security Service. Disregarding that criticism, parliament passed the package of draft laws on March 1 by a vote of 87 in favor and two against.

Following consultations in early March with the three opposition parliament factions (the Alliance of Patriots and the two groups into which the United National Movement parliament deputies split late last year), Margvelashvili announced he would veto the bills. His objections, as set out in a 164-page document, focused on two key points. First, he argued that counter to the Constitutional Court's requirement, the new Operative Technical Agency will not be independent, insofar as it will be subordinate to the State Security Service. He therefore proposed it should be subordinate to the prime minister -- although it is not clear how that would guarantee its greater independence. And second, he claimed that the provisions will impose an "unjustified" considerable financial burden on the telecom operators which would be required to pay for installation of the requisite equipment.

Those objections angered some Georgian Dream lawmakers. Vano Zardiashvili advised fellow lawmakers to ignore what he termed "a veto simply for the sake of vetoing," while Eka Beselia, who headed the ad hoc working group that authored the new wording of the bill incorporating the third "key," asked Dolidze outright whether or not Margvelashvili trusted the State Security Service and the Personal Data Protection Inspector, and whether he considered legal the outcome of the October 2016 parliamentary ballot, InterpressNews reported on March 21.

The overturning of the presidential veto by a vote of 86 in favor and 22 against, and Margvelashvili's subsequent signing of the bill, do not signify the end of the legal battle, however. Transparency International -- Georgia's executive director, Eka Gigauri, has already announced her intention to appeal the law to the Constitutional Court and then, if need be, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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