Category Archives: Armenia

Armenia – In the wake of a colour revolution? Domestic and international context

April 2018 in Armenia was marked by massive grassroots protests, the resignation of the newly-nominated prime minister, and complex political negotiations.

Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who formerly served as President for a decade, resigned on April 23, after 11 days of massive protests. While resigning, Sargsyan said: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.” MP Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk Bloc, emerged as the undisputed leader of these recent protests. On May 1, the failure of the National Assembly to nominate Mr Pashinyan as provisional Prime Minister has led to a new wave of intensified protests.

While most analysts were surprised by the resignation of Sargsyan and the beginning of a new political process, elements of continuity can be observed, both at domestic and international level. First, the grassroots protests against Serzh Sargsyan’s extended term in office were sudden, but can be traced back to December 2015, when a controversial constitutional reform was approved. Second, while Russia has taken a non-interventionist stance, all actors involved are fully aware of the importance of the “big brother”.

Some protests? Business as usual! (or not?)

Armenia is a peculiar case in the post-Soviet space. While Freedom House classifies the country as a “partly-free regime”, Armenians have often taken to the streets against unpopular provisions, such as the increase in bus fares in 2013, the pension reform in 2014[1], and the increase in electricity prices in Summer 2015 (known as ‘Electric Yerevan’). Against this background, it is not surprising that people closely scrutinised the manoeuvring of their political leaders.

In December 2015, following a referendum, a constitutional reform was approved[2]. As a result, most executive prerogatives were transferred from the President to the Prime Minister. While the promoters of this reform repeatedly remarked that a parliamentary system would prompt the full democratisation of the country, the public debate focused on whether this reform was an ‘ad-hoc’ mechanism to extend the rule of (then) President Serzh Sargsyan, who was serving his second and last presidential mandate. Rather than ending after the referendum, these allegations were the subject of further discussion, notably at the parliamentary election in 2017. Throughout this time, Serzh Sargsyan assumed an ambiguous position, neither confirming nor denying his intention to stay in power. In March 2018, when Sargsyan’s transition to the premiership seemed almost certain, MP Nikol Pashinyan announced that massive protests would follow any such development. He said: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2018, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[3].”

On April 11, the ruling Republican Party (HHK) officially confirmed that Serzh Sargsyan would be nominated (and therefore elected) prime minister. While initially a limited number of people took to the streets, soon numbers added up, and thousands of people participated in the rallies, during which there were numerous clashes between the police and protesters. On April 22, after a meeting with the now prime minister Serzh Sargsyan, the protest leader Nikol Pashinyan and some of his closest associates were taken into custody. However, Mr Pashinyan was released the following day and shortly after Prime minister Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation. As required by the law, the government resigned on the same day and first Deputy Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, was named acting PM.

However, the rallies did not stop, as Mr Pashinyan, backed by numerous supporters, aimed to become the provisional prime minister, so to supervise the preparation of free and fair elections. It was feared the ruling party HHK would manipulate any transitional process, by using administrative resources to reconsolidate their power.

On May 1, due to the opposition of the Republican Party, Pashinyan failed to be elected provisional Prime Minister. As things stand, a new parliamentary debate has been scheduled for May 8. As per the Armenian constitution, if the National Assembly is again unable to select a premier, this impasse would automatically lead to the dissolution of the legislature and snap elections. As a reaction, Pashinyan called for ‘Nationwide Civil Disobedience’. In the words of Pashinyan: “The peaceful revolution goes on (…) We’re not going to let them steal our victory”.

Nikol Pashinyan’s background is particularly remarkable. While other status-quo challengers in the region, first and foremost former President of Georgia Saakashvili, were previously Cabinet members[4], Pashinyan used to be a political prisoner. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years for his role as an organiser in the anti-government protests of 2008. However, as a result of an amnesty, he was released the following year[5].

Big brother is (discretely) watching you

While the aforementioned dynamics are undisputedly domestic, all parties involved need to take into account the international environment, first and foremost Russia. As of 1999, Armenian foreign policy has been characterised by complementarity, which implies a diversified foreign policy within the leeway granted to it by Russia[6]. While some external observers have interpreted the protests as anti-Russian, Nikol Pashinyan, formerly known for his Russian-sceptic positions, has shown his awareness of the geopolitical constraints faced by his country.

When the protests started, some external observers said that they might be the prelude to an anti-Russian turn in Armenia. Former Georgian President Saakashvili, who framed the events as an anti-Russian uprising, unambiguously said that: “This is a very black day for Vladimir Putin. First, the West threatened him and imposed sanctions against him, hitting his oligarchs, and now they are squeezing the scope of his influence.” Similar comments were made by members of the Georgian parliamentary opposition[7]. Analogously, some Ukrainian media drew parallelisms between the current events in Armenia and the Maidan protests in 2014, which resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government[8]. For instance, journalist Ihor Solovey wrote that: “The street has won, and Russia has lost”, and therefore Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation should be understood as a “Russian foreign police failure[9].

Despite this reading of events, Russian officials clearly refrained from making an alarmist comments, as if to emphasise that the Kremlin was not planning to interfere. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists that Yerevan was: “Not going down the path of destabilisation“. Additionally, he specified that Russia hoped for: “Consensus among all the forces representing the Armenian people“. Similarly, Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, praised Armenia on Facebook for: “Not becoming divided, and maintaining respect for one another, despite definite disagreements“. Looking at the media coverage, Kremlin-friendly channels mostly ignored the events in Armenia until the resignation of Prime Minister Sargsyan and after that they commented on the festive attitude at the rallies. In some cases, it was openly said that the happenings in Yerevan were something completely different from Maidan[10].

This conciliatory attitude by Russia must not be confused with lack of interest. Russian officials and politicians made sure to keep their channels open with all the parties involved. On April 25, Putin had a conversation with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. The same week, while Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian met his Russian counterpart Lavrov, another meeting took place between some Russian diplomats and Nikol Pashinyan, who understands very well that a successful transition cannot happen without Russian support.

Previously, Nikol Pashinyan and his Yelk Bloc adopted clear Russo-sceptic positions. Notably, in Autumn 2017, they proposed a legislative initiative to the Armenian National Assembly which would have created a commission on withdrawal of Armenia from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to Pashinyan, membership in the EEU harmed the growth of Armenia, as it restricted its opportunities for international trade[11].  Additionally, he also made security-related considerations, calling the deepening military ties between Armenia and Russia “humiliating”, just at the Kremlin was also reinforcing its military-strategic cooperation with hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan[12].

Despite these unequivocal declarations, the prospect of becoming Prime Minister has made Pashinyan play down his former Russo-sceptic attitude[13]. In the immediate aftermath of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Pashinyan made it clear that the revolution was a domestic affair and that there was no geopolitical reversal on the agenda. Thus, during a press conference on April 24, Pashinyan declared that:  “We’re not going to make any sharp geopolitical movements. We’re going to do everything in the interests of Armenia“.  This point was made again, and emphasised, during a rally in Gyumry (April 27), where a Russian military base is located. On that occasion, Pashinyan bluntly said that: “We are no enemies to Russia,” and that he would not take Armenia “down the path of unwise [decisions] and adventures.”

Notes

[1] Loda, C., 2017. The European Union as a normative power: the case of Armenia. East European Politics33(2), pp.275-290.

[2] This blog has covered the constitutional reform as of 2015, analysing its detailsthe pre-vote dynamics, and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian pundit eyes reasons, future of ‘velvet revolution’”, April 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] ARMINFO News Agency. 2011. “Nikol Pashinyan released”, 28 May (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University), p. 3.

[7] However, other Georgian politicians spoke about the importance to maintain good relations with Armenia, regardless of the recent development [BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. “Some in Georgia see Armenian developments as blow to Russia”, April 24 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

[8] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[9] BBC Monitoring Kiev Unit. 2018. “Ukrainian media hail victory of ‘Armenian Maidan’”, 24 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[11] “Armenian National Assembly discusses legislative initiative on withdrawal from EEU”, 3 October (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Hot debates in Armenian Parliament over creating the United Group of Armenian-Russian troops: Block Yelk considers the document humiliating and “vassal””, 4 October (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[13] Providing a full account of the Russo-Armenian relationship/dependency goes beyond the scope of this post. For more insights, refer to: Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University),

Armenia – The election of a ceremonial president, but what about the ‘new’ Prime Minister?

On March 2, the Armenian parliament elected the next president of the country. The ‘winner’ (and only candidate) was Dr Armen Sarkissian[1], formerly an academic, Armenian prime minister, and  Armenian ambassador to the UK. However, Dr Sarkissian’s prerogatives will be mostly ceremonial, as the 2015 constitutional reform transferred most of the president’s governing powers to the prime minister. While the current President Serzh Sargsyan has not openly expressed his intention to run as prime minister[2] (to be selected in April), he played a crucial role in the nomination of president-elect Armen Sarkissian, fuelling rumours about him becoming prime minister. This triggered not only unhappiness from the opposition, but also protest rallies.

A new (ceremonial) president

In January, President Serzh Sargsyan asked Armen Sarkissian to stand as president. This was not an obvious choice, as Dr Sarkissian has been living abroad (mostly in the UK) for the past decades, holding first academic fellowships and then diplomatic posts. He is known for being a close friend of Prince Charles, who in 2016 hosted a gala dinner to support “Yerevan My Love”, a charity set up by Sarkissian. Additionally, he has been a senior advisor for companies such as British Petroleum, Alcatel and Telefonia. On occasions, doubts have been raised about the transparency of his business activities.

Sarkissian’s nomination was widely supported by the ruling block. Other than being the candidate of the ruling Republican Party (HHK), Dr Sarkissian was also backed by the junior coalition partner Dashnaktsutyun. Additionally, the Tsarukian’s alliance, which is officially in the opposition, neither openly opposed Armen Sarkissian’s nomination nor proposed an alternative candidate. In brief, the Yelk bloc, which holds 9 out of 105 parliamentary seats, was the only coalition to oppose Sarkissian as the (sole) candidate president[3]. Against this background, it was no surprise when he was elected by a landslide in the first round. He is due to take office on April 9. In the immediate aftermath of his election, Armen Sarkissian expressed gratitude to his predecessor for his support and guidance in the past months, and made clear that his mandate will be in full continuity with Serzh Sargsyan’s work and vision. In Dr Sarkissian’s words: “I am ready to completely devote myself (…) to a cause which is actually also a continuation of the first, second and third of your presidencies.[4]

His election was marked by some controversy over his eligibility, as a dozen leading NGOs suspected that he did not meet the citizenship requirements. As per the 2015 constitution, presidential candidates must have been solely Armenian citizens for the previous six years. While Armen Sarkissian vehemently declared that he has renounced his British citizenship (acquired in 2002) in 2011, some evidence seems to suggest that he did so only in 2014. Furthermore, he never presented any UK-issued formal document about his citizenship status. However, despite the concerns of the opposition and civil society, members of cabinet dismissed these allegations as groundless.

Other than that, the close relationship between the President and President-elect cast some doubts on the legitimacy of the latter. According to the independent Armenian analyst Saro Saroyan, these dynamics are remarkably worrisome: “Will he [Armen Sarkissian] act as a puppet constrained by the lack of legitimacy or as a person with amorphous powers? If the import of such a president to Armenia is to the “credit” of Serzh Sargsyan, there can by default be no other decision in determining the personality of the prime minister. Serzh Sargsyan will be making this decision too”[5]. From this statement, two points can be inferred. The first one concerns the genuine political capital enjoyed by president-elect Armen Sarkissian. The second one is the extraordinary engagement of Serzh Sargsyan in this presidential election, as it seems to confirm his alleged willingness to become premier.

Who wants to be a prime minister?

In 2015, when a constitutional referendum was announced, rumours started to circulate about President Serzh Sargsyan’s political ambitions. As he was serving his second presidential mandate and was barred from seeking election for a third time, it was suspected that transitioning from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system was a way for President Sargsyan to retain his power, in the guise of prime minister. In recent times, such suspicion has been reinforced by the further enhancement of the premier’s prerogatives. For instance, the National Security Service and Police will be reporting directly to the premier. Additionally, the prime minister will reside in Bagramyan 26, which is the current presidential residence, and the presidential staff will be considerably downsized (while the prime minister’s team will be enlarged)[6]. These changes, which add up to the (dramatic) constitutional empowerment of the prime minister’s powers, further reinforced the opposition’s firm belief that Serzh Sargsyan will be nominated by the HHK as the next premier. As observed by analysts and members of the opposition, Serzh Sargsyan “Would not have vested such broad powers in anyone except for himself”.

The HHK party, supported by the junior partner Dashnaktsutyun, enjoys a parliamentary majority solid enough to install any candidate of its choice.  Remarkably, even though President Serzh Sargsyan has not announced his plans yet, senior members of his party (HHK) have indicated that he is the ideal prime minister. Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of parliament, said that the HHK party will formally discuss it after April 9, as a final choice is not due to until April 16. However, in his opinion, President Sargsyan would be the most qualified candidate. Similarly, Vahram Baghdasarian, the head of the HHK parliamentary faction, said that Serzh Sargsyan is the most suitable person for the job, also due to the tensions with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. By contrast, the opposition considers the handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as one of the reasons why Serzh Sargsyan should step down. According to Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk faction, the 4-days-war with Azerbaijan in April 2016 exposed the poor conditions of the Armenian army, which was still equipped with weapons from the 1980s. In spite of this evidence, Sargsyan did not take any concrete action to improve the situation[7].

Last weekend, rallies started to take place in the city centre. As noted by Mr Pashinyan, at this point, only massive grassroots protests can prevent Serzh Sargsyan from becoming prime minister. In Pashinyan’s words: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2008, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[8].” In this regard, a newly-formed group called “Front for the State of Armenia”, aims at becoming a key platform for protest and change, uniting both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition. The next rally is already scheduled for March 16.

Notes

[1] Some sources transliterate his last name as Sargsyan. However, ‘Sarkissian’ is the most widely used version.

[2] In 2015, as a result of a constitutional referendum, the powers of the President were drastically reduced and, conversely, those of the Prime Minister were dramatically enhanced. Even if President Serzh Sargsyan never gave unequivocal statements about his long-term political ambitions, from the beginning this reform was widely suspected to be a tool to extend his power after his second, and last, presidential mandate. This blog gave extended coverage to this topic, analysing the details of the reformthe processes before the vote and the pertinent debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] This post, previously published on this blog, deals with the 2017 parliamentary election, explaining in detail which parties and coalitions were elected.

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. ‘Armenian president-elect vows to continue incumbent’s policies’, March 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. ‘Karabakh issue ‘resolved’, no need in talks with Baku – Armenian pundit’, March 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Ani Mshetsyan. 2018. ‘Nikol Pashinyan: The only thing that can force Serzh Sargsyan to abandon the post of prime minister is the will of the people’. Arminfo News Agency, March 5 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Ibidem.

Armenia – The others and Russia: Walking the complementarity tightrope

In the last months, Armenia has been remarkably active in developing and enhancing its international ties. However, Russia has not stopped keeping in check its “small brother”. Armenia’s sudden withdrawal from NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise in Georgia is illustrative of the pressures and challenges it faces. Rather than being confined to the foreign policy realm, these developments have some domestic implications.

Over the summer, Armenia was working towards the strengthening of the relationship with a plurality of actors. Such diplomatic activism can be interpreted as being in line with its main foreign policy guideline, namely complementarity. That means cultivating ties with as many international partners as possible, within the leeway consented by Russia. Concerning the relationship with the EU, Yerevan and Brussels are expected to sign the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), whose details were finalized in March. Both Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, and the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, are confident about a successful outcome. In the words of Mr Sargsyan: “We have no reason to not sign that document”. A similar statement was also made by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. Other than interacting with the EU, Armenian officials had discussions with their Iranian counterparts about the implementation of a free-trade zone. Additionally, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan and the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pledged to reinforce their bilateral ties. These developments, and some prior diplomatic moves, have domestic implications. Thus, they can be understood as being linked to the September 2016 Government reshuffle, and to the need to promote foreign investments and sustainable developmen[1].

Focusing on the relationship with the EU, CEPA can be interpreted as the last episode of a complex interaction. In addition to being an upgrade in bilateral relations, the signature of CEPA is relevant since at the last minute, in September 2013, Armenia withdrew from the Association Agreement (AA) talks with Brussels and announced instead its decision to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Even though most analysts suspect this U-turn to be the result of Kremlin pressure, Armenian political elites have never publicly admitted that this was the case. For instance, in recent times President Sargsyan denied any such external interference, saying that: “We negotiated with both the EEU and the EU, since initially both sides said that one does not interfere with one another. But, what should we do when the European Union said that it hinders?”[2] In other words, it was hinted that the EU, rather than Armenia, suddenly departed from what had been previously agreed. However, in spite of this official rhetoric, the influence of Russia seems clear[3].

The withdrawal from the Association Agreement shows that Russia can be an unpredictable and capricious “big brother”. Thus, while there should be no objection to signing CEPA[4], the Kremlin still keeps a close eye on its South Caucasian ally. In this regard, notwithstanding the diplomatic activism of the past months, the last-minute withdrawal from the NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise in Georgia, which took place between September 3 and September 11 was remarkable.

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). However, the country has been developing ties with NATO, as per the Individual Partnership Action Plan and the Partnership for Peace program. Within this framework, some Armenian troops took part in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo[5]. Aware of the possible tensions and misunderstandings arising from this situation, Armenian cadres often specified that cooperation with NATO neither interfered with the CSTO’s commitments nor involved any future plan of membership. For instance, during an interview in July 2017, President Sargsyan ruled out any ambition to join NATO[6].However, in spite of these precautions, the withdrawal from the NATO drill seems indicative of some misunderstanding between Moscow and Yerevan.

Armenian policymakers said that their participation was never confirmed. Notably, Armenian Deputy Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov also remarked that, notwithstanding cooperation with NATO, CSTO plays a crucial role for the security of Armenia[7]. However, that does not mean cutting ties with NATO. In this regard, presidential spokesperson Vladimir Akopyan stated that missing the military exercise did not prelude a reconsideration of the relationship with NATO (i.e. cooperation without membership)[8]. It must be added that it is not the first episode of this kind. In 2009 Armenia, after confirming its involvement in a NATO exercise, also pulled out at the last moment[9].

Despite the aforementioned declarations, some doubts are in order. Georgi Kajarava, the Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman, said that this decision was highly unexpected[10]. Even more explicitly, the Armenian expert Ruben Mehrabyan bluntly said that: “A simple comparison of realities that have taken shape in the region and Armenian-Russian relations simply rule out any theories for the exception of Russia resorting to brazen blackmail and the Armenian leadership back-pedalling.” Mr Mehrabyan also ruled out that the withdrawal of Armenia could be attributed to the participation of Azerbaijan. First, Baku announced its involvement at the very last minute. Second, both Armenia and Azerbaijan participated in games organized and hosted by Russia[11].

The hypotheses about Russian pressure= are reinforced by an analysis of the Russian press. The pro-government newspaper “Pravda” used the expression “common sense prevailed” when commenting on Armenia’s sudden refusal to participate in the NATO drill. In the same article, which also hinted at the unhappiness of Russia with the cooperation between NATO and Armenia, it was plainly stated that: “We would also like to remind our Armenian friends that it was Vladimir Putin (not Angela Merkel) who stopped the offensive of Azerbaijani troops in Nagorno-Karabakh in April [2016][12]”.

While these dynamics relate to the international sphere, they are also relevant to the understanding of domestic developments, first and foremost the future of Serzh Sargsyan[13]. As reported in this blog, Mr Sargsyan declared that in the future he would like to be involved in security affairs. However, he prudently refrained from commenting on the NATO issue. Due to the constitutional reform of 2015[14], Mr Sargsyan could extend his position in power by becoming premier. Given that, his silence could be interpreted as a way to avoid tensions with a crucial partner.

In addition to this prudence in international affairs, an analysis of domestic dynamics also seems to confirm the unwillingness of Mr Sargsyan to quietly retire. While he refrains from declarations about his future, Galust Sahakian, a deputy chairman of President Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), declared that the President should stay in power after the end of his second presidential mandate (i.e. should become Prime Minister), since no other leader could take up such a responsibility.

In conclusion, Armenia needs to find a balance between its desire for investments and modernization, and its need for not displeasing Russia. Turning to the current leadership, prudent decisions seem connected to their permanence in power.

Notes

[1] Refer to Erik Davtyan’s analysis for more insight on Armenia recent diplomatic moves and their implications.

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Kiesler: European Union is ready to sign agreement on extended and comprehensive partnership with Armenia”, September 12 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] This author conducted expert interviews in Armenia in Summer 2015 and Summer 2015. All her respondents agreed on Russia having strongly influenced that decision. For further insights, refer to: Loda, C. (2016, May). Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society. In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?. Nomos Nomos. Pp 131-152.

[4] BMI Research. 2017. “New EU Deal No Game Changer”, Armenia Country Risk Report, October 1 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Thai News Service. 2017. “Armenia: Armenian presidential spokesman comments on relations with NATO”, September 8 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Thai News Service. 2017. “Armenia: Armenian presidential spokesman comments on relations with NATO”, September 8 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Programme summary of Armenian Public TV news 1700 gmt 4 Sep 17”, September 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] ITAR-TASS. 2017. “Armenian presidential spokesman says no plans to review relations with NATO”, September 07 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Dashnaktsakan: Armenia is an independent state, and can independently decide in which exercises to take part, and in which there is no”, September 04 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenia to participate in the training “Combat Commonwealth 2017” within the framework of the CIS against the backdrop of refusal to participate in NATO exercises”, September 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[11] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Pundit: Armenia misses US-led drills due to Russia’s “brazen blackmail””, September 6 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] Stepushova, Lyubov. 2017. “Russia tells Armenia where to sit”, Pravda.Ru, September 7, http://www.pravdareport.com/world/ussr/07-09-2017/138617-armenia-0/.

[13] BMI Research. 2017. “New EU Deal No Game Changer”, Armenia Country Risk Report, October 1 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[14] In 2015, a constitutional referendum reduced the powers of the President and enhanced those of the Prime Minister. Considering the political implications of this change, it has been observed that it would enable President Sargsyan, who is serving his second and last presidential mandate, to extend his permanence in power by becoming Premier. This blog extensively covered this topic, focusing on the details of the reform, the campaign before the vote and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.

Armenia – Shortcomings in the parliamentary elections and the long shadow of the future

On 2 April 2017, a parliamentary election took place in Armenia. This was a particularly remarkable event in the political life of the country, as it was the first national vote after the approval of the constitutional reform, in December 2015 and the subsequent adoption of a new electoral code. The victory of the Republican Party, which has been in power since 1999, makes it possible for the incumbent, President Serzh Sargsyan, to think of taking on a prominent political role after the end of his second (and last) presidential mandate in 2018. In spite of the emphasis by the ruling political cadres, the president included[1], on the proper management of the electoral process, domestic and international observers have lamented malpractices both during the electoral campaign and the election itself. In spite of these concerns, most international observers have refrained from condemning the overall result.  This post will offer a detailed account of these issues.

RESULTS

On Monday 10 April, the results were published by the Central Committee Election (CEC).

Of the 105 seats in Parliament, 58 were won by the Republican Party, 31 by the Tsaroukyan bloc (led by the businessman Tagik Tsaroukyan), 9 by the Yeld bloc, and 7 by the Dashnaktsutyun Party (ARF) [2]. As prescribed by the new electoral code, four representatives of ethnic minorities were elected under a special quota. Three of them were allied with the Republican party (Assyrian, Kurdish and Yazidi) while the other one, a representative of the Russian community, run with the Tsaroukyan bloc.

The formations which did not meet the 5% threshold, and therefore were not assigned any seat, were: the ANC–PPA Alliance, the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanian Alliance, Armenian Renaissance, the Free Democrats Party and the Armenian Communist Party.

While the results could be interpreted as a narrow victory for the Republican party and will mean that the party will probably resort to a coalition, it is undoubtedly a more favourable result than what was predicted by surveys immediately before the election[3].  Notably, the opinion polls released at the end of March by the KOG Institute and the Demokratijos projektai foresaw the “Tsarukyan bloc” as the clear-cut winner, with 40,4% of the vote, and the ruling Republican Party collapsing to 19.4%. Meanwhile, the poll organised by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) predicted the Tsarkukian’s bloc would gain 41% of preferences, and the Republican Party 39%.

THE CAMPAIGN

This plurality of candidates had an impact on the electoral campaign, which was characterised by an unusual level of activism by candidates. Most of them were campaigned on a similar political platform, based on day-to-day economic issues, such as unemployment, low salaries and rampant emigration rather than macro issues such as any geopolitical confrontation. Citizens reported an unusually high number of visits from party representatives and pamphlets sent to their address. In spite of this genuine electoral competition, some misconduct has been reported. Notably, at the end of March, the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC), an Armenian civic organisation, declared that school principals across the country were urging their staff and their students’ families to cast their vote for the Republican Party. While the ruling party did not deny this allegation tout court, the actions were dismissed as the spontaneous campaign of private citizens in a manner that was perfectly consistent with the provisions of the electoral code. This last point was contradicted by the UIC’s findings, which outlined 136 cases of school directors being given instructions by representatives of the Republican Party[4]. Due to these episodes, the opposition ORO and YELK blocs appealed to the CEC, asking for the disqualification of the Republican Party. Both appeals were rejected.

In addition, some disinformation campaigns seemed having been attempted.

In March, some Russian Twitter accounts posted the above e-mail supposedly leaked from USAID to demonstrate that external forces were actively manipulating the election results. USAID immediately dismissed the e-mail as a fraud, claiming that the staff would not have sent anything like that (in broken English) from a Gmail account.

External actors were concerned about the conduct of the campaign. On 16 March  Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU delegation in Armenia, invited Armenian voters not to get involved in electoral fraud, either by participating actively or by looking the other way. During his speech, he openly mentioned vote-buying, saying: “Don’t be exposed to the temptation of selling your vote. You may be approached by people who will be offering you money, services, promises in exchange for your vote. There is no money in the world that can be worth selling your vote”. This was not an isolated comment, as, in the following weeks, the United States and the EU Mission in Armenia put out a joint statement noting their concern about: “allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.” In other words, in spite of the electronic system of voter identification provided by international donors (already mentioned in this blog), foreign diplomats based in Yerevan voiced their concern about a fraudulent electoral environment.

ASSESSING THE VOTE

Most assessments of the Election Day, except by the CIS monitoring mission[5], mentioned some types of irregularities. However, external observers refrained from labelling the overall process as not free and fair. The International Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported that: “The 2 April parliamentary elections were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. [However], the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies”. In other words, while the overall process was not dismissed as fraudulent, the broader electoral climate was described as plagued by illegal practices and petty corruption. A similarly cautious statement was made by an EEAS spokesperson who, while fully endorsing all the shortcomings pointed out by the EOM, commented that: “The election result nevertheless reflects the overall will of the Armenian people”. It also added: “We look forward to working with the democratically elected new Parliament and Government”. This statement was not complemented by any declaration of the EU delegation in Armenia, as ambassador Switalski declined to comment on the electoral result.

Domestic criticism, from both civic and political activists, was much more critical. The Citizen Observer Initiative denounced widespread violations in the conduct of the elections, outlining episodes such as controlled voting, the manipulation of voter lists, pressure and bribes, inefficient commission work, insufficient vigilance at polling stations, and the failure of the technical devices[6]. The unelected ANC-PPA not only complained about fraud, but formally appealed to the CEC for the invalidation of the electoral result. Even though this claim was rejected[7], the parliamentary election results were annulled in a central village in the Aragatsotn province due to widespread fraud. Remarkably, the handing out of vote bribes was admitted even by Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson of the Republic Party, who, however, added that isolated episodes did not affect the overall result. In spite of the shortcomings mentioned above, plus others that had not been included in this post (for reasons of space), people did not take to the streets to demonstrate against the dubious result. That is surprising, considering that, in the past years, elections have almost always triggered widespread demonstrations. Notably, both in 2008 and in 2013, several thousand activists protested against the allegedly rigged presidential election[8].

WHAT ABOUT THE PRESIDENT?

In spite of all the controversies, both during the campaign and the vote, the Republican Party has emerged as the winner of this election. While the current Prime Minister, Karapetyan, will keep his job until May 2018, the scenario after the end of the presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan is still to be defined. As reported previously in this blog, the recent constitutional reform will reduce the prerogatives of the president, making this office mainly ceremonial, and increase those of the prime minister. This power-sharing innovation, introduced shortly before the end of the second presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan, has been widely interpreted as an attempt by Sargysan to avoid relinquishing power. For his part, Mr Sargsyan has been extremely laconic in declarations about his future plans. For example, a few days after the elections, he declared in an interview: “I have never planned where I will be in the next stage of my life. I always found myself in places where I was of greater help to our security.” Turning to Prime Minister Karapetyan, he is by far one of the most popular figures in the party. Even though he was not a candidate for parliament, since he did not meet the residency requirement, his image dominated the campaign of the Republican Party. However, he does not seem to have a solid support network in Yerevan that would enable him to determine his own political future. In conclusion, while no open declaration about the future of Mr Sargsyan has been made, this electoral success may give him the option of avoiding an early political retirement.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Serzh Sargsyan: Big work has been done on conducting elections in accordance to international criteria”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenian CEC presented the final results of Parliamentary elections”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Some speculations are made on the relationship between the Republican party and the Tsarukyan bloc. For example, it has been hypothesised that President Sargsyan covertly supported it, since it subtracted support from other opposition forces. Similarly, before the elections, the analyst Emil Danielyan conjectured about Tsarukyan and Sargsyan having a “tacit understanding” for the future, which could lead either to a formal coalition or a role for the ‘Tsarukyan bloc’ as “constructive opposition”. As of this writing (11/04/2017), a coalition between the two has not been announced.

[4] Some school principals involved have sued the Civic Initiative which brought the scandal up to public attention.

[5] Armenpress News Agency (English). 2017. ‘CIS observer mission assesses Armenia’s parliamentary election as “open and transparent”’, 3 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Armenia: Observers say polls tainted by vote-buying, pressure”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Arminfo News Agency. 2017. “Sharmazanov to Ter-Petrosyan: Parliamentary elections are the best indicator of Armenia’s democratic development”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Loda, Chiara. “Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society.” In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?, pp. 131-152. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, 2016, 146.

Armenia – Is International Goodwill a Form of Soft Power? Some Insights from the South Caucasus

In September 2016, referring to the parliamentary elections due to be held in the spring of 2017, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia declared that: “I am sure that all these measures will contribute to raising public confidence in electoral process and ensure that we meet international standards for free and fair elections. Parliamentary elections will be held in our country in several months. The Republic of Armenia will send invitations to all partners for their participation in international monitoring missions[1]”. Even though political leaders do not always implement this kind of declaration, the recent Armenian record gives some backing to the credibility of the statement.

Armenia is not a consolidated democracy, as clearly stated by “Freedom House-Nations in Transit” 2016 report. In 2016 (like in the previous years) Armenia is classed as a semi-consolidated authoritarian regime. In particular, with reference to electoral processes, it is considered that the level of local self-governance remains insufficient. Looking at the executive level, some observers and members of the opposition have criticised the recent constitutional reform[2]. According to them, rather than being aimed at the greater good of the country, the reform represents a tool to extend President Sargsyan position in power. Additionally, corruption remains pervasive. In spite of these and other shortcomings, in recent times Armenia has often searched for international advice and approval before implementing major reforms. Relevant examples of that are the forthcoming parliamentary elections, as hinted at the beginning of the post, and the recent constitutional reform (approved by referendum on December 2015).

International observers have been formally invited to monitor the forthcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for April 2, 2017. More precisely, on January 19, Arsen Babayan, Head of the Information Department of the Armenian National Assembly, declared that four international organisations have been invited: the Council of Europe, PACE, OSCE, and CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly[3]. Such a move was widely expected. Remarkably, in anticipation of a formal invitation from the Armenian authorities, in the past months, the OSCE/ODIHR conducted a “Need Assessment Mission report”, which involved consultations with both institutional and civic actors. As a result, the deployment of 24 long-term observers and 250 short-term observers has been recommended. Additionally, the Armenian government has been cooperating with international donors towards the enhancement of electoral capabilities and transparency. For example, after some talks, the Government and the EU delegation in Armenia agreed on the funding and purchasing of cameras to be placed in the polling stations. Additionally, a program for the timely acquisition of voter identification technologies has been coordinated by UNDP and funded by the EU, the USA, Germany, and Great Britain[4].

This search for the cooperation and, more indirectly, the approval of the international community (especially EU and the US) is not new. As already dealt with in this blog, in July 2015, before submitting the text of the new constitution to the voters, the Armenian authorities asked the Venice Commission (the advisory body of the Council of Europe specialised in constitutional law matters) for an advisory legal opinion. Following the opinion, the draft of the constitutional reform was amended accordingly. This cooperative attitude is diametrically opposed to the hyper-assertive behaviour of neighbouring (and arch-enemy) Azerbaijan. Notably, in November 2016, the Azerbaijani Constitution was modified by referendum. On that occasion, the government in Baku, despite of severe criticism from the opposition, refrained from asking for any external advisory opinion on the draft. Notwithstanding the lack of a formal invitation, but in response to a request from several human rights defenders, the Venice Commission issued an urgent preliminary opinion on the draft (which was not formally discussed by the Azerbaijani authorities), highlighting concerns on matters like civil liberties and over-empowerment of the presidency.

Armenia has nothing specific to gain from being a “good international citizen”. In spite of its membership in the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organizations (CSTO) and the Eurasian Union (EEU), Armenia seems to be on remarkably good terms with the EU. Notably, even though no specific dates have been announced yet, Yerevan and Brussels are concluding the negotiation of an agreement to deepen economic and political ties. This is happening roughly three years after a Armenian u-turn. More precisely, in September 2013, after the sudden withdrawal of Yerevan from Association Agreement (AA) talks with the EU, it was made clear that Armenia was not eligible for any alternative form of association. This did not prevent Armenian officials, including the President, from making frequent comments about the desire for cooperation with Brussels[5]. The ongoing search for another form of association seems to have helped the Armenian cause, as shown by the current ongoing negotiations.

In short, Armenia is making successful use of its soft power (i.e. persuading others to do something without resorting to coercion). Notably Yerevan, in spite of its binding ties with Russia, has convinced the EU of the importance of not abandoning its “willing child”. Even though it would be superficial and dismissive to ascribe this outcome solely to Armenia’s “good international attitude”, it is safe to say that it has played some role.

If this hypothesis is correct, it can allow us to make sense of soft-power strategies implemented by extra-European states[6]. In particular, it can help us to understand why mega-events, such as sporting competitions, have limited power in seducing an external (Western) audience. As Nye points out, “The best propaganda is not propaganda”. This refers to the mediocre outcomes of Russian and Chinese soft-power strategies, which project a government-crafted message that, ultimately, is not credible[7]. A similar point can be made about neighbouring Azerbaijan, which for years has implemented an (expensive) state-sponsored public diplomacy strategy, involving both grand events and a carefully planned official narrative. In spite of the effort, during the “European Games” of 2015 the international spotlight was on political prisoners rather than on the brand-new stadiums[8].  At things stand, Baku seems to have acknowledged the limited effectivity of the strategy.

In summary, Armenia, notwithstanding its binding ties with Russia, has been successful in portraying itself as an eager partner of the EU. In addition, both before the recent constitutional reform and the forthcoming parliamentary election, external advice and approval have been proactively sought. This is in sharp contrast to the Azerbaijani strategy, which until recently was more focused on grand events rather than on initiatives and reforms that were geared towards external observers[9].  Going beyond these cases, these observations may be relevant to the broader understanding of soft-power tools. While the limits of building stadiums seems have been realised now, more attention should be paid to “international goodwill”.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Armenia’s President: Armenia’s new government’s task is to give new impetus to development of economy”, September 17 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] This blog has analysed the Armenian constitutional reform, including the public debate around it, in the following dates: November 30, 2016; December 9, 2015; September 13, 2015.

[3] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Arsen Babayan: 4 international organizations invited to observe parliamentary elections in Armenia”, January 19.

[4] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Negotiations continue on installing video cameras in polling stations in Armenia, Switalski says”, January 24.

[5] Loda, C., 2016, May. Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society. In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation? (pp. 131-152). Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[6] Providing a detailed account of the Armenian geopolitical membership may be daunting. Even though the country is geographically much closer to Teheran than to Brussels, the Armenian political narrative has consistently emphasised the belonging of the country to the European-Christian civilisation.

[7] Nye, J.S. 2013. “What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power”, National Herald Tribune, May 2 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Loda, C. 2016. “Azerbaijan, Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy”. Irish Studies in International Affairs, 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3318/isia.2016.27.7.

[9] Also in the case of Azerbaijan, the targeted audience is the western one. For a more detailed analysis, see: Loda, Azerbaijan, Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy.

Armenia – One year after the Constitutional Reform: Future perspectives for the President and his party

In 2015, after a referendum, Armenia voted to switch from a semi-presidential political system to a parliamentarian one. As a consequence of that, most governing prerogatives are due to shift from the president to the prime minister. This change has been accompanied by discussions about the implications of the change. Notably, both before and after the vote, the public debate has focused on the consequences on the tenure in power of President Serzh Sargsyan, who has been ambiguous as to whether he will run for Prime Minister after the end of his second and last presidential mandate. Almost one year after the constitutional amendment, the debate has not ceased.

The debate about the constitutional reform has centred on the personal gains of politicians (especially the serving President) rather than on the institutional implication. This is nothing new in either an Armenian or the South Caucasian context. More than a decade ago, in the months preceding the Armenian Constitutional Reform in 2005, the public debate in Yerevan focused on how the new legislative provisions would give substantial immunity to the president[1]. Similarly, in 2010, when neighbouring Georgia approved a similar reform to the 2015 Armenian constitutional change, critics observed that it would secure then then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s position in power. In the end, the electoral defeat of Mr Saakashvili’s party (UNM) in the 2012 parliamentary election was followed by a smooth transfer of power, often saluted by external observers as a crucial moment in the Georgian path towards democratisation.

Back in Armenia, the debate has been recently revitalised after the public declarations of the President. At the end of October 2016, when asked by Al Jazeera about his intention to run for Prime Minister in 2017, President Sargsyan answered evasively: “You know, I find it too early for these conversations.” While, for roughly one month, Mr Sargsyan refrained from further comments, in the following days and weeks different comments came from the ruling majority, the opposition and the press. Tatevik Shahunyan, who is Vice Speaker of the Armenian Parliament and Spokesman for the ruling “Republican Party” (RP), declared that it was premature to talk about the political future of the President before knowing the results of the Parliamentary elections in 2017; this statement neither confirmed nor denied the scenario of Mr Sargsyan becoming Prime Minister at the end of his presidential mandate[2].

As expected, the opposition commented on these developments in a much more decisive way. Levon Zurabian, a parliamentary leader of Armenian National Congress (HAK), interpreted President Sarksyan’s statement as an admission of political ambitions beyond his presidential mandate. This opinion was promptly reiterated by Mr Zaruhi Postanjian, the leader of Heritage party. The press enriched the debate by pointing out the potential intra-party implications of this “tandem”. The pro-opposition paper Zhamanak reported that an exceptional electoral result by the ruling Republican Party might be interpreted as stemming from the work of the current Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan. In that case, his resignation in favour of Serzh Sargsyan would seem illogical. President Sargsyan might benefit more from a “moderately good” result which, without jeopardising the ruling majority, would not be interpreted as the personal success of Mr Karapetyan[3].

After roughly a month of silence, President Sargsyan finally spoke both about the Prime Ministership and party unity, denying any conflict between his personal ambitions and the future of his faction. On November 26, in occasion of a speech given at the “16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia[4]”, he ruled out the immediate substitution of the Prime Minister, saying that:  “[I]n case we receive the vote of trust in the coming elections, our government will again be headed by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian who will continue to implement the current programs.”. In spite of this declaration, which in any case did not clarify President Sargsyan’s intention after the end of his presidential mandate in 2018, some members of the opposition maintained their comments. For example, Levon Zurabyan (HAK) declared: “Karen Karapetyan is being used by the PR to secure their success in the parliamentary election. That will later pave Serzh Sargsyan’s way to the prime minister’s office”.

In relation to intra-party dynamics, President Sargsyan’s speech placed the emphasis on the need for the Republican Party to unite[5] and promote the modernization of the country. Notably, significant space was devoted to the economic results obtained in the last eight years in the face of the global financial crisis. He pointed out the need for Armenia to undergo a broad process of reforms, both in relation to the economic development of the country and in the face of external challenges. In the words of President Sargsyan: “We need to reduce and eliminate the negative [spill-over of the hostile external environment]. Any successful reform will bring also new success in other areas”. This insistence on change seems to refer not only to future targets but also to measures adopted in the recent months. Notably, a reduction in the gas price, effective as of July 2017, was approved in October. In the same month, an anticorruption bill was voted.

The lengthy speech by President Sargsyan at the annual party convention suggests that the forthcoming parliamentary campaign will be mostly centred on economic themes rather than on strong personalities. That is in line with one of the declared goals of the constitutional reform, namely the replacement of a people-based political culture with the consolidation of ideological platforms. Pertinently, the President’s rhetoric reveals the attempt to minimise intra-party divisions and shift the attention to a programmatic platform. In this perspective, the opposition, which is hardly unified, has already expressed its interest in joining forces to prevent a landslide victory of the Republican Party. The next months will be crucial in understanding whether the soon-to-be introduced parliamentary system can indeed foster democratisation as claimed by its proponents, rather than being the vehicle for personal political ambitions.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] Arminfo News Agency. 2005. “Those Who State that the Bill of Constitutional Reform will lead to Impunity of the President are Unaware of the Bill”, November 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Sharmazanov in the footsteps of Serzh Sargsyan’s interview to Al Jazeera: It is tactless to speak of President’s plans after 2017 elections until election results are known”, November 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian press discuss president’s interview with Al-Jazeera”, October 29 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] In occasion of the 16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia, Prime Minister Karapetyan has formally joined the Republican party.

[5] In spite of this pledge for unity, analysts suspect that the inclusion of Mr Karapetyan in the Republican Party has not been received with unanimous enthusiasm [ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Expert: with Karapetyan’s assignment the old guard turned the most vulnerable point of Republicans”, November 28 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

 

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?

9781137387806

Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.

Armenia: recognizing Karabakh? The Armenian debate and the reaction from Azerbaijan

In the aftermath of the “4 Days War” in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisian, declared that, in the case of resumed hostilities, his country would recognize the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. One month after, a bill titled “On recognition of Republic Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh]”, submitted by two opposition MPs, was approved by the Government and presented to the Parliament for discussion. Nevertheless, both political and media actors have bee equivocal about the suitability of the unilateral recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh. From the Azerbaijani side, it is remarkable the limited attention this event was given. In particular, President Ilham Aliyev, who in the past adopted a warmongering narrative, has not commented on this specific development.

Following the cease fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh consolidated itself as a de facto state after a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Currently, its statehood remains completely unrecognized given that not even its Armenian patron has taken a formal stance in that direction. This choice has been mostly motivated by the commitment not to spoil the mediation effort of the Minsk Group, which is the OSCE group in charge of facilitating a resolution of the stalemate. For example, speaking to the representatives of the mass media in March 2013 President Sarkisian declared: “What will the citizens of NK and Armenia gain today if independence of NKR is recognized? (…) How dangerous will such a decision for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh be? (…) It means a slap in the face not only for the other side but also for the Co­chairs [of the Minsk Group]”. In brief, it is argued that recognizing Nagorno-Karabak would lead only to new troubles in the absence of tangible benefits. This position was widely shared by the Armenian political spectrum as demonstrated by the rejection of the various pro-recognition bills proposed by “Heritage Party”. However, in 2010 International Crisis Group pointed out that, in the case of resumption of full-scale hostilities, the de facto state may be recognized and a pact of mutual defense with Nagorno-Karabakh may be signed. After April 2016, political actors had to deal seriously with these issues.

“If military actions were to continue and escalate on a larger scale, the Republic of Armenia would recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh. With these words, on the 4th of April, President Sarkisian hinted at the possibility of formal recognition. However, after the end of the armed hostilities, no further declaration in this direction came from the Presidential office. By contrast, some actors in the opposition considered the time ripe to bring forward this issue again. = That translated into a bill called “On recognition of Republic Artsakh,” proposed by the opposition PMs Zaruhi Postanjyan (Heritage party) and Hrant Bagratyan (Armenian National Congress). On the 5th of May the Armenian government approved it for parliamentary discussion within 30 days. As expected, this triggered a debate not only in Armenia but also abroad.

Although most external powers did not openly comment on this decision, Russian officials manifested their opposition. Remarkably, at the beginning of May, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, spoke against unilateral recognition. It is reasonable to say that the Russian stance may have influenced the public debate. At the moment, politicians from both the government and the opposition are adopting a prudent attitude. Prime Minister Abrahamian said that, with Azerbaijan respecting the cease-fire, there is no need to rush into recognition. Similarly, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, reassured external powers saying that: “The conclusion of the Government does not imply an endorsement of that initiative. (… ) [In that event], the President of the Republic of Armenia, would inform his partners in advance and, first of all, the heads of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries”. This moderate position is also shared by the bulk of the opposition. Armen Rustamyan, the leader of the ARF faction in parliament, declared that recognition should not be unilateral, but instead in line with the Minsk Framework. Similarly, a few days previously, former President Ter-Petrosyan stated that a premature recognition of Karabakh would irremediably jeopardize the effort of the Minsk group. Turning to the media debate, most Armenian newspapers agree that an early recognition would harm the interest and the long-terms goals of the country[1].

Given the sensitivity of the issue, Baku may be expected to react to such a move. However, it = composed behaviour adopted by Azerbaijan has taken observers by surprise. This is in striking contrast to the previously assertive narrative. Whereas in the past President Aliyev continuously reaffirmed the military strength of his country and the commitment to the re-conquest of the lost lands, recently his declarations seem more conciliatory and less in favor of resuming hostilities. Consistent with that, the reaction to the possible recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh has remained contained. Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Ministry’s acting spokesperson, declared that: “By recognizing the separatist regime formed in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, Yerevan will put an end to the Minsk peace process and should this happen, the Minsk Group will possess no negotiating mandate”[2] Thus, no explicit declaration came from the President and the media debate remained limited. Speculating on the reasons behind that, it can be hypothesized that the country, which has been severely hit by the drop in oil prices, may be reconsidering its extra-assertive attitude and narrative of the previous years. The liberation of prominent political prisoners in the past months has already been read in this vein.

In sum, even though probably it will not have an immediate follow up, the Armenian debate on the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh is relevant not only for Yerevan but also for Baku. Thus, the fact that Armenia is acting cautiously makes new attempts of mediation possible. On 16th of May, the two presidents will meet in Vienna even though, given their irreconcilable positions, expectations for a breakthrough run low[3].

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] “Armenian press say Karabakh recognition matter of time, but not now”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 10, (2016).

[2] Russia & CIS General Newswire, “Recognition of Karabakh independence by Yerevan to derail OSCE Minsk group’s mediation efforts – Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry”, May 3, (2016).

[3] “Armenian press skeptical about “favorable” outcome of meeting with Azerbaijan”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 14, (2016).

 

Armenia and post-sanctions Iran. Opportunities and constraints

The beginning of 2016 will be probably remembered for the lifting of international sanctions on Iran. This event has changed long-consolidated equilibria not only in the Middle East but also in the South Caucasian region. While oil-rich Azerbaijan has good reasons to fear the return of Teheran on the global energy market, apparently Armenia has only to gain from that. Even if the two bordering (and internationally isolated) countries have always somehow interacted, Yerevan knew that too much enthusiasm in this regard would have not only enraged the Russians, but also severely compromised its relations with the western word.  Departing from that, the recent international rehabilitation of Iran provides an interesting opportunity to Armenia, allowing it to have a normal relationship with another bordering country (in addition to Georgia). Currently, talks between the two countries are ongoing. Among other things, the possibility of Iranian gas transit through Armenia is being discussed. In spite of all these potential gains, the Armenian presidential office is remarkably silent on the issue. Remarkably President Sarkisian, who at the beginning of March found the time to congratulate the “Young land defender members”, did not make any public declarations about future forms of cooperation with Iran. Similarly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has actively worked to make talks happen, has not advertised these efforts loudly. This low profile can be put down to the fear of enraging Russia. However, even if this factor is absolutely crucial, it would be incorrect to explain the whole dynamic in light of the interaction with the Kremlin. Conversely, a deeper understanding can be gained first by looking at the relation of Yerevan with the West and second by looking at the domestic dimension.

Further cooperation with Iran would undoubtedly benefit Armenia. First, it would be a golden opportunity for Yerevan to break its “dual dependency” on Russia, as energy provider, and on Georgia, as a main transit route.  As result of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan have been closed. This has led to a pattern of asymmetric relations with Russia. Second, better relations with Iran would indirectly advantage Armenia vis-à-vis Azerbaijan, which in turn has been experiencing some lingering tensions with the Shi’ite giant.  More specifically, even if both Baku and Teheran are Shi’ite energy-rich countries, cooperation is hampered not only by different ideas about the role of religion in public, life but also by the presence of a large Azeri minority (around 20 million people) in Iran. In spite of that, they have found some understanding, as exemplified by their decision to complete a railway link by the end of 2016. However, this project does not mean that Mr Rohani has ruled out the Armenian option. Remarkably, in February Armenian public TV announced that Iranian specialists would soon visit the country and assess the feasibility of a railway connection. In brief Armenia, over-dependent on Russia and structurally isolated from the rest of the region, seems on the paper a less-attractive partner than Azerbaijan. However, the tensions between Teheran and Baku may work in favour of Yerevan by promoting its inclusion in Iran’s long-term plans.

Despite all the aforementioned benefits, Iranian-Armenian cooperation is not obstacle-free. First, the Armenian potential for international actions is severely restricted by its pervasive ties with Russia. Looking specifically at energy and economic factors, two elements emerge: the role of Gazprom and the membership in the Eurasian Union. First, the Russian state-owned Gazprom gas company is in control of the whole Armenian gas market. More precisely in 2014 Gazprom, which was already the majority stakeholder in the Armenian gas company, bought the remaining shares and become its sole owner[1]. Additionally, in January 2015 Armenia joined the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Due to its membership, Yerevan is barred from setting its own custom duties and, consequently, restraints are placed on its free-trade policy. All these elements are indicative not only of the Kremlin’s influence over Armenian external relations but also its interest in keeping the “smaller brother” firmly in its orbit.

As already hinted, understanding the Russian factor is necessary but not sufficient to explain the Armenian-Iranian relationship. Remarkably, the willingness to keep good ties with the United States and the European Union is another important factor in the equation. When sanctions were in place there was a tacit understanding that the West, first and foremost the US, would not have tolerated blatant violations of the international embargo. Henceforth, interactions with Teheran had to been qualitatively discreet and quantitatively limited. Even if the lifting of the sanction regimes changes this state of things, the situation is still too fluid to allow excessive public expressions of enthusiasm. The same applies to Brussels. In a recent interview the EU representative for external affairs, Federica Mogherini, when asked if Yerevan could act as the “new Hong-Kong” and connect the EU to Iran, answered that Brussels, fully aware of the potential benefits, is closely observing the situation[2]. In a nutshell, given the “in-progress” nature of this geo-political shift, Armenia seems to consider it prudent to interact discretely with Teheran rather than to voice premature enthusiasm.

The final constraint to the enhancement of the Iranian vector has domestic rather than international origins. From a series of expert interviews in summer 2015, some concerns about making deals with Iran[3] emerged. Generally speaking, the Iranians were described as difficult partners to come to terms with. This view is not restricted only to the indigenous cultural elite, but is also shared by the population at large. Remarkably, from a Caucasus Barometer survey it emerges that only 52% of Armenians approve of doing business with Iranians[4]. This approval rating is significantly lower than the case of doing business with Russians, Americans, Europeans and Georgians. This analysis of grassroots perceptions suggests that deals with Iran, even if objectively convenient, may encounter a lukewarm domestic reaction. That might explain why Armenian political actors, first and foremost the president, are not eager to advertise the recent developments with Iran too much. In sum, while international considerations are important for understanding Armenia’s cautious approach to Iran, domestic implications should be further investigated.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] Even before, the contractual strength of Russia over Armenia successfully prevented any real energy diversification.

[2] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit (2016), “EU foreign policy chief interviewed on relations with Armenia”, February 29 (Retried through LexisNexis).

[3] All conducted by the author in Yerevan, in English, as part of the fieldwork related to her PHD thesis.

[4]  46% disapprove and 2% do not know.

Armenia – The constitutional referendum and the role of the president during the campaign

On Sunday a referendum took place in Armenia. Citizens were called to express their opinion on a set of constitutional amendments. With 63.35% voting in favour, the “yes front” prevailed (though the official result will be published the 13th December). Among other things, the result means a deep restructuring of the architecture of state power. More precisely, the Armenian semi-presidential political system will transition into a parliamentary one.

This result, relished by the ruling Republican Party, was not necessarily determined in advance. In fact, surveys conducted in the previous weeks did not show clear-cut result. Even the referendum day witnessed a certain surprise element. First, the voter turnout was slightly above 50%, which is the minimum threshold to validate the result. Second, and probably most importantly, some observers denounced the elections as rigged.  In particular, the opposition lamented cases of pressure, ballot-stuffing, violence and vote buying. Journalistic sources reported the episode of a man in a van distributing 10,000 drams (almost $20) to elderly voters. When asked about it, he claimed he was paying back a debt. These incidents also raised concerns among international observers. On Tuesday (8th December), the US and the EU invited the Armenian authorities  to conduct an investigation on the major irregularities that plagued the referendum.

Fraud was feared even before the vote. In fact, already in November various groups suggested that the authorities were planning to rig the referendum. The main opposition to the changes were the “No” Front and the “New Armenia Public Salvation Front”. The former is mainly composed of the Armenian National Congress (ANC), and the People’s Party of Armenia. In the past months Levon Zurabian, an ANC leader, emerged as probably the most visible character from this group. The latter is principally composed of the Heritage party, the Democratic Homeland opposition party, the socio-political organization ‘Constitutive Parliament’, and the protest movement ‘Rise, Armenia!’ Even if they occasionally cooperated in the campaign, they never merged. In the aftermath of the allegedly rigged vote, the groups are holding joint protests in the capital.

During the referendum, though, one actor was surprisingly quiet: the President of the Republic, Serzh Sarkisian. Even if the reform was strongly supported by his ruling Republican Party, President Sarkisian, who originally set up a Commission on Constitutional Reforms (on 4 September 2013) and facilitated the various stages of the referendum, did not play a role prior in the vote. In fact, after signing the decree setting the day of the referendum, he limited his number of declarations to both domestic and international media outlets.

Looking at his behavior, it seems that he did not want to present the change as his own brainchild. Even if he limited his comments, an attentive interpretation of some of his declarations supports this idea. For example, in his address to the 3rd International Forum of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MSIIR) Alumni, President Sarkisian underlined how the final text of the proposed new draft was the result of a prolonged dialogue with the opposition and the civil society. Additionally, he pointed out that the “draft of amendments to the acting Constitution [was] based on the Concept Paper published six months ago [by the Venice Commission]”. Similarly Edvard Nalbandyan, the Armenian Foreign Minister, declared in Tbilisi, at an unofficial meeting of EU Eastern Partnership foreign ministers, that the Venice Commission considered the work of the Constitutional Commission to be accurate and in line with international standards.

In addition, in the final phase of the campaign the president and (to a lesser degree) the Republican Party stated that a positive result was not an absolute priority and that, no matter what the outcome, the government’s position in office was not at stake. The press conference that the President gave on the 3rd of December, after weeks of quasi-silence, illustrates this point. President Sarkisian said that:“ Our priority is to conduct a normal referendum, within legal boundaries, and not just make changes. Changes are not the matter of life and death, and in general, for me no voting is a matter of life and death”.  Sticking to the same line a couple of days before, Vice President of the National Assembly Eduard Sharmazanov declared that the reform was not a top priority for the Republican Party.

The aforementioned declarations seem aimed to present the reform as a shared effort, bringing together domestic and international actors, instead of a personal battle. Ultimately, they might be interpreted as an effort by President Sarkisian to distance himself from the project. As reported by the pro-opposition “Zhoghovurd” Newspaper, the opposition considered this silence, which was quite unusual shortly before a referendum, as an attempt not to transform a possible defeat into a personal failure of the president and, eventually, into a de facto vote on his tenure in power[1].

In spite of this low profile, the pre-referendum press interview obtained huge attention and criticism from the opposition. The president seemed to contradict his previous declarations on his future. In the past months, he has declared that he would not be seeking the role of prime minister after the end of his presidential mandate in 2018. Departing from that position, when asked about his future intentions, he said that: “We will talk about that after the 2017 parliamentary elections”. This vagueness reinforced a major critique of the reform, namely that it was aimed at the good of the country but the perpetuation in power of President Sarkisian. In the immediate aftermath of the interview, Levon Zurabian, a leader of the “Armenian National Congress” party, said that: “Serzh Sarkisian has refuted his loyalists’ claims that he has no desire to reproduce his regime (..) With his statement, he has exposed his entire plan to retain power”.

Commenting on the final result, President Sarkisian said that:We can now conclude that the parliamentary system of government for our state is already a reality (…) It means the existence of strong government and strong opposition, an increased role for political parties and new opportunities for their development”.  He did only briefly mentioned the allegations of fraud, suggesting that the competent bodies should investigate any fraudulent episodes. At this stage, no comment was made on his political future.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Note

[1] This last point is particularly significant if we consider that one of the main discussion points in the previous months was whether the constitutional change would allow the president to remain in power. In addition, some groups started to question President Sarkisian would serve until the end of his term. More precisely, on 1st of December, the “New Armenia Public Salvation Form” held a permanent sit-in in Freedom square (one of the main squares of the capital) and openly called for the resignation of President Sarkisian.