Friday, 23 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Armenia

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

For Armenia 2012 will be dominated by parliamentary elections in May, the first since a disputed poll in 2008 led to street protests in which at least eight demonstrators were killed by police.

President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia, which heads the ruling coalition, will probably win another parliamentary majority. But it is likely to be significantly reduced by a number of factors, leaving the country’s political landscape in flux after a period of relative stability.

The authorities are under pressure to ensure free and fair elections from both external forces such as the OSCE, and from the biggest opposition bloc, the Armenian National Congress of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. The ANC, which has boycotted parliament and held a series of overhyped street protests, has repeatedly spoken of the election in Manichean terms, warning of revolutions which would topple the “bandit regime”.

Blatant electoral fraud by the government would invigorate Ter-Petrosian’s tired movement, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets of Yerevan. Aware of the new strength which power people has demonstrated in 2011, it seems unlikely that the authorities would risk a crackdown on the scale of 2008, raising the serious possibility that the government would subsequently resign or collapse (or lose a re-run).

If the ruling coalition has an eye to its own survival, therefore, it will work hard to ensure a free and fair election. This is a far smaller risk – Ter-Petrosian is a deeply divisive figure and the ANC’s insistence on bombastic, extra-parliamentary politics has not endeared it to many ordinary people. The parliamentary opposition – Heritage and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – are too small to be a serious threat.

Admittedly, being the incumbents will take its toll on the coalition, as anywhere: Armenia’s economy is extremely fragile, elite corruption is entrenched, and the social safety net is fraying. A more serious threat could be the fracturing of the coalition before the election. There have been hints that the second-largest coalition member, Prosperous Armenia, is not as loyal as it could be.

Tensions have been growing between Prosperous Armenia and the Republican Party, with some suspecting that the former will be a vehicle for former President Robert Kocharian to re-enter politics. They have also sparred over a by-election, and Prosperous Armenia have failed to publicly support Sarkisian’s re-election in 2013.

Ter-Petrosian, seeing an opportunity, has attempted to peel the junior party away from the coalition. Prosperous Armenia’s apparent consideration of his olive branch has deepened suspicions within the coalition. To date, the three partners have not even agreed on whether or not to contest the election as a formal alliance.

On balance, it seems likely that the coalition will hold together: the parties have more chance of retaining power together than separately. Prosperous Armenia may break away if Ter-Petrosian looks on the cusp of winning, however.

If the coalition is re-elected as seems likely, expect more of the same in Armenian politics: intra- and inter-party squabbling, opposition protests, complaints about corruption and freedom, a sagging economy propped up by remittances. The economic picture will probably get increasingly bleak if the country’s biggest export partners – Russia and the EU – go through further financial turmoil.

On foreign policy issues the debate is unlikely to move anywhere. On Nagorno-Karabakh another Sarkisian-led government will dig in its heels, especially as Azerbaijan has a temporary seat on the UN Security Council which it will use to apply some verbal pressure. Turkey’s row with France over the Armenian genocide bill will inflame nationalist sentiment in both Ankara and Yerevan, which will kill off the protocols for their rapprochement for some time.

All of this may change with a Levon Ter-Petrosian government, or after a period of political instability in Armenia – neither of which are likely, but are possible if the government cheats its way to victory. It should not need to do so, but old habits die hard. If it manipulates the poll, then all bets are off for Armenia in the year ahead.

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