Yerevan, Armenia (openDemocracy) – One of my American colleagues who lives in Boston and always keeps in touch with the local Armenians, last year visited Armenia as a volunteer firmly intending to assist in fixing some social problems in Armenia. After working for more than a month in Armenia we finally met just before his departure to the USA.
He was sad and perplexed. “I know many Armenians living in Boston, New York and New Jersey,” he said, “they are very successful in their respective fields and live safe and prosperous lives. Many of them emigrated from Armenia during the last 15–20 years; and I treat the Armenians with admiration.
Now, when I have visited various towns and villages in Armenia, met people, listened to them about their and the country’s problems, I’m just stunned. How is it possible that a country with such a talented and hard-working people, and such a diverse diaspora that sends billions of dollars to Armenia every year, can remain so underdeveloped and poor?”
Indeed, Armenia was well-known in the Soviet Union for its highly skilled population, its industrial, scientific and educational potential, and its healthcare. Now Armenia has become one of the poorest countries in the world. The average monthly salary in Armenia is $370 (USD), the average monthly pension is $90, and 20% of children under five years old have health problems caused by undernourishment.
The economy is suffering under the yoke of the local oligarchs and Russian monopolies. The authorities have signed many disgraceful agreements with Russia, which force Armenians to buy gas and oil exclusively from Russia at the highest price possible, when oil and gas prices have fallen elsewhere in the world.
There is no serious local or foreign investment in Armenia not only because of the unfavourable economic conditions (some patriotic Armenians from the diaspora are ready to make substantial investments even in these conditions), but also because of the unwritten laws of systemic corruption. Every investor planning a significant project in the country is obliged to donate a substantial portion of its investment to the current president’s family in order to be able to operate without obstruction. For example, the current president’s brother, Sashik Sargsyan, is known in Armenia as Mr. “50%.”
The systemic injustices and illegalities in Armenia, as well as the alienation of ordinary citizens from their own country’s government, have led to widespread apathy and despair. People, who could develop Armenia, are leaving the country for Russia, Europe, USA, Ukraine, Canada and Australia. The current emigration rate of 4–5% of the whole population annually is the highest in the world and is simply disastrous. During the 25 years of Armenia’s independence, more than 2 million people left the country, almost the same number of people who remain there today. Moreover, half of those emigrants left Armenia in the last 8 years, during Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency.
The government, through sophisticated and unlawful practices, has left the country’s citizens bare-handed in face of a mighty criminal gang that has seized power in Armenia. The people cannot affect this situation in any way and their participation in the elections serves as a smokescreen for the ruling clan to demonstrate formal conformity with the democratic standards imposed in Armenia by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is difficult to find another country in the world, where the ruling party has so many members with mafia-style nicknames
On February 2013 the West turned a blind eye to the reproduction of Serzh Sargsyan’s power through massive electoral fraud, as Sargsyan had promised to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. But the previous four years of successful negotiation process with the EU was not a classic episode of the Eastern Partnership but rather a vivid example of eastern cunning aimed at getting support from the West during upcoming presidential elections.
The post-election protest campaign, organized by Raffi K. Hovannisian, who was actually elected as a president by absolute majority, was denied any political support from the West and gradually faded away. Just four months after the demise of this powerful anti-governmental movement, Serzh Sargsyan not only refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, but during his meeting with Putin in the Kremlin made a solemn pledge to integrate Armenia into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
It is noteworthy that Raffi Hovannisian’s “Heritage” party was the only one, whose faction in the Parliament voted against Armenia’s integration to the EEU. As a result the authorities worked incessantly to exacerbate the rivalries within the party and its parliamentary faction and eventually to eviscerate it. Now the parliamentary faction of the “Heritage” party essentially has only one member instead of its previous five. Today the authorities promote puppet “pro-western” parties, which are fully under its control.
On December 6, 2015, Serzh Sargsyan called a referendum on constitutional “reforms” and laid the groundwork to reinforce and perpetuate his power in a weakened Armenia. Currently in his second and final term as President, these changes are designed to enable him to retain power as Prime Minister or Speaker of the Parliament. No wonder that the results of the referendum were rigged. Thanks to the opposition and civil society efforts, the law enforcement authorities have had to file dozens of criminal cases on numerous electoral frauds during the referendum.
None of these criminal proceedings have been initiated as a result of the intervention by the Police or National Security Service. And this all happened despite the fact that the opposition parties are not funded from any sources, except the annual state financial subsidy of a mere 7–10 thousand dollars, which is provided by law (other sources of opposition financing, such as financial backing from business sector, are strictly forbidden, and carry penalties for the sponsors that can lead to their bankruptcy: we have such examples).
But even the court cases of the criminals who rigged the results of the referendum bring no results as they are released one-by-one after simply paying small fines; in fact the maximum punishment for such an offense as state capture in Armenia is a fine of $ 1000. And even if some will be imprisoned, certainly very soon they will be released under amnesty, granted by their main customer, the president, as has happened during the last years of independent Armenia.
Thus, in Armenia catching criminals and handing them over to be tried and punished is the direct responsibility of the opposition and civil society, while the absolute right of the authorities is to release those criminals, who will continue to falsify elections, capture the state, plunder the state budget, and simply sending to prison those who actively resist these electoral crimes. There are 13 political prisoners in Armenia today. This fact has been unanimously accepted not only by the opposition and human rights organizations, but also in Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, which has urged Armenia’s authorities to release them many times.
The reaction of the West to the rigged referendum last December compared to the 2013 presidential election was tougher. The West, through the US Ambassador and the Head of EU Delegation to Armenia have demanded the punishment all the criminals, who committed electoral fraud, and prepare an electoral code with the involvement of civil society and the opposition, and thus take steps to restore public trust towards the electoral system.
But these statements have made little difference. Recently the Government of Armenia received a “yellow card”: on March 18, a few days after the publication of authorities’ anti-democratic draft of the Electoral Code, “Moody’s” downgraded Armenia’s long-term issuer and senior unsecured debt ratings from Ba3 to B1.
But the debate on the Electoral Code in Armenia shows that, even with pressure from the West the authorities will not be pushed to accept any real reform of the Electoral Code for one simple reason – election laws, which guarantee free and legitimate elections, will be the end of their power.
And any government elected by the people will uncover a long series of the economic and criminal offences, such as the mass shooting at the Parliament in 1999, the murder of 10 peaceful demonstrators in 2008, the falsification of at least 5 presidential elections, the extradition of a huge section of Armenia’s economy to Russia for a low, sometimes symbolic, price, and the continual looting of the state treasury.
But if until recently Armenia’s democratic society has had no hope of a regime change in the country, now, in the light of economic and geopolitical weakening of the Serzh Sargsyan’s main sponsor Kremlin, such hopes are beginning to revive. The opposition, supported by the civil society, will try to change the government for the first time in the history of Armenia and to establish a democratic regime.
In this regard, the situation has a number of similarities with that of Ukraine, and the current president of Armenia resembles President Yanukovych, the former ruler of Ukraine. Serzh Sargsyan enjoys the support of only 7–8% of the population and is widely mistrusted by the general public.
The Yanukovych precedent is instructive, particularly since many people in Armenia have been excited about the popular revolution in Maidan, as they were in 2011 about the Arab Spring. In Armenia the more or less positive attitude towards Russia that has existed for 20 years is taking some sharp turns.
The only factor that still keeps Armenia in Kremlin’s orbit is the Turkish-Azerbaijani threat, expressed, on one hand, through the ongoing illegal blockade of Armenia by Turkey as well as the refusal by Ankara to ratify the Armenian-Turkish protocols, signed under the auspices of the USA, EU and Russia.
On the other hand, there are the statements by the leadership of Azerbaijan about the possibility of conquering the self-determined Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (the last one, by the way, according to the Freedom House index “Freedom in the world”, has much more democratic political system and more liberal economy than Azerbaijan). But even these factors will be unlikely to hold back the people when the last drop will overflow their cup of patience.
“It is enough to establish legitimate government in Armenia based on the people’s choice, and I am sure, that Armenia will blossom in a short time,” said my American friend before leaving.
Armenians hope that this day is not so far.
This report prepared by HOVSEP KHURSHUDYAN for Global Voices Online.