Despite continuing concerns about the state of Armenia’s the economy, President Serzh Sargsyan is showing little sign of using his new term in office to push through major reforms in the near future.
Sargsyan won re-election in February with 59 per cent of the vote.
A member of his Republican Party, Mikran Hakobyan, says the president just needs to hold his present course, as the government’s existing policies will be enough to satisfy opposition voters as well as his own.
“The winning candidate will continue his process of reforms and formulate new, more ambitious goals for the state,” Hakobyan said.
Opinion polls suggest that Armenians are not particularly happy with the way things are going. One survey by the APSC group last year showed that 48 per cent of respondents were unhappy with their lives, and only ten per cent said they were satisfied.
Hakobyan argues that although people continue to leave the country in droves, the president has handled an economic crisis effectively, raised living standards, and avoided social unrest.
The exodus is a major problem. Official statistics service show that some 200,000 people have left Armenia just in the last four years. That is a high figure for any country, let alone one with a population of around three million.
In a survey which the Caucasus Research Resource Centre conducted last year, 2,600 of the 4,000 people polled – nearly two thirds – said they too would consider emigrating. (See Armenia’s Shrinking Workforce.)
Speaking in mid-March, Sargsyan pledged to secure seven per cent economic growth, and also to make sure that wages rose faster than inflation.
“We have plans to raise the average wage. The government is seriously considering a significant increase in average wages and pensions from July 1 this year,” he said.
Hrant Bagratyan, a former prime minister now in opposition, said such promises had been made before.
“Five years ago the president promised to increase gross domestic product by 100 per cent, but growth has been just five per cent,” Bagratyan wrote in a Facebook comment. “It is pointless to blame this on the global economic crisis of 2009, when the world economy has risen by 12.5 per cent since then.”
Richard Giragosian, a political analyst who heads the Centre for Regional Studies in Yerevan, said the president would need to do a lot more than just maintain current policies if he wanted to dig the country out of the hole it was in.
“He needs to show political will and think about what development path Armenia should follow,” Giragosian said. “Sargsyan’s second term gives him an opportunity to come out from [previous president] Robert Kocharyan’s shadow, to create a political legacy of his own, and to strengthen democracy.”
Sargsyan’s main challenger in the February election, Raffi Hovhanessyan, made an unexpectedly strong showing with 37 per cent of the vote, in part because bigger opposition figures refused to stand.
He refused to accept defeat and toured the country in what his supporters called the Barevolution, a pun on the Armenian word for “hi”. This led to the largest demonstrations Armenia had seen in years, and even prompted Sargsyan to acknowledge that the country faced difficulties. (See Armenia: Opposition Candidate Campaigns to Annul Election.)
Even though Hovhannisyan claimed he had been robbed of victory by fraud, Sargysan was prepared to meet him. Some analysts see this as a positive development, a sign of a new way of doing politics.
“This meeting was unprecedented in the history of independent Armenia,” said Alexander Markarov, director of the Armenian office of the Institute of CIS Countries. “It’s a step that Robert Kocharyan would not have taken. It is a new format for dialogue that may not satisfy the wishes of the dissatisfied masses, but that will open a new page in the relationship between government and opposition.”
The meeting with Hovhanissyan was not a one-off. Sargsyan also showed a willingness to engage with critics by replying to an open letter from Serj Tankian, an American rock musician of Armenian heritage who questioned the election results and spoke of an atmosphere of mistrust.
“This new form of dialogue was unexpected,” Alen Ghevondyan, a lecturer in politics at Yerevan State University, said. “This kind of correspondence shows that the government is open to criticism and discussion. It allowed us to see that the government is ready for an exchange of opinions on any subject and doesn’t see politics as a zero sum game.”
Despite the praise for the change in political tone, few commentators believe more substantive changes are imminent.
“This isn’t a way out of the situation,” said Arman Galoyan, a columnist for The People newspaper, said in an interview with Gala television. “It’s just a temporary tactic needed to soothe political tensions. As long as Sargsyan is in power, nothing is going to change in this country. After every election, the public grows dissatisfied again, and a new wave of emigration begins.”
Arpi Harutyunyan is a correspondent for Armnews.