Landlocked Armenia has been dreaming of peaceful development for the past 20 years. But its future is dogged by major uncertainties due to the unresolvedconflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, pitting it against neighbouring Azerbaijan.
There seems little doubt, however, regarding the outcome of the presidential election on 18 February. The official campaign, launched on 21 January, is unlikely to stir up much excitement among a disenchanted electorate.
By all accounts the favourite is the incumbent Serzh Azati Sargsyan. In former Soviet republics the incumbent enjoys a crucial advantage: they control the apparatus of state, at a national but above all municipal level, enabling them to mobilise voters. In the present case various opposition candidates have dropped out of the race, making life even easier for Sargsyan.
In December former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, 68, caused surprise when hethrew in the towel, purportedly on the grounds of his age. His party, the Armenian National Congress (HAK), decided not to back another younger candidate, opting to condemn the poll for being rigged, before the fact. “Petrossian knew his probable defeat would mean curtains for his political career, so he had no alternative,” says Aharon Adibekian, head of the Sociometer polling institute, which is currently crediting Sargsyan with a 25-point lead.
In the 2008 elections Petrossian was defeated, triggering violent clashes between his supporters and police and the declaration of a state of emergency. The regime accused him of trying to seize power by force and blamed him for the death of 10 demonstrators. This time he has chosen to avoid conflict.
No one will be representing the Prosperous Armenia party (BHK) either, despite the party finishing in second place in last May’s general election, behind Sargsyan’s Republican party (HKK). The BHK leader, businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, also decided not to run against the president. Other candidates will nevertheless be competing, in particular Raffi Hovannisian, the first foreign minister after independence (following the Soviet Union’s demise) and nowhead of the Heritage party.
He was in Paris on 17 January for talks with Paul Jean-Ortiz, one of President François Hollande’s diplomatic advisers.”We are swimming against the tide. People are very fatalistic,” he said. “It’s because of their past experience of rigged elections and totally ineffective pro-European speeches,” he added.
The American-born Hovannisian thought it was “odd” that other parties had given up the fight, but is convinced he stands a chance if he can make it to the second round. He is demanding television debates. “The people who say it’s all settled have no respect for voters,” he asserted, condemning the incumbent’s use of “state resources, like public buildings, town halls, schools and hospitals”.
Hovannisian claimed that his supporters in the provinces were the target of intimidation, and appealed to the president to prosecute the officials responsible for such acts.
As well as economic woes, attention in the campaign is certain to focus on normalisation of diplomatic relations with Turkey and settlement of the ongoing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Hovannisian hopes to gain international recognition for this breakaway region of Azerbaijan. “It would be hypocritical not to do so, for any nation which has already recognised Kosovo, or in response to [Russian recognition of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he contends.
In his view Karabakh representatives should be taking part in talks, supervised by the Minsk Group (France, US, Russia), which have made little progress in 20 years. He does not object to plans floated by Sargsyan to reinstate flights between Yerevan and Stepanakert, the “capital” of the separatist province.
- This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde