October 7, 2010 § 1 Comment
Who lives there?: 71 years after Hitler said, “after all who today remembers the Armenians” there are slightly more than 3 million of them living in Armenia. In addition roughly 150,000, many of whom consider themselves Armenian, live in Nagorno-Karabakh – a de facto independent part of Azerbaijan in alliance with Armenia (or under Armenian occupation – depending on your point of view).
How does the system work? (the theory): The President is elected every five years by a universal suffrage first past the post election with a runoff election between the two highest placed candidate in the event of no presidential candidate winning 50% of the vote. Presidents can only serve two terms. In addition a Prime Minister is elected by the legislative. The President is considered to have more executive power than the Prime Minister although the Prime Minister is tasked with more of the “day-to-day” running of the country.
The legislative branch consists of the national assembly which is elected by top-up or mixed member PR for four year terms. There are are 56 first-past-the-post seats and 75 top-up PR seats. The PR is of the closed list d’Hondt variety and there is a 5% threshold to get into parliament.
Armenia is divided into 11 regions which are further divided into local communities. The regional governments are entirely appointed by the federal government and have virtually zero autonomy. The community governments elect a council of elders – depending on their size they elect either 5, 10, or 15 strong – for three year terms by d’Hondt PR in either one, two or three constituencies. The council of elders in theory have a degree of local self-government although in practice this is curtailed by the fact that the central government controls the local government’s budgets and the fact that many areas which are traditionally the purview of local government are, in Armenia, directly administered by the centre.
How does the system work? (the practice): Armenia is seen as a flawed democracy. Some elections have been free and fair, some have been marred by serious irregularities and some have been outright rigged.There has not yet been a peaceful transfer of power since independence – the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and allied independents having ruled since forcing out first President Petrossian in 1998. Following several elections, particularly the 2008 presidential election, there have been mass protests by the opposition which have often threatened to turn into outright revolution – but so far haven’t.
Acts of violence are not unusual: most famously in 1999 five gunmen stormed into the parliament and shot the Prime Minister, the Speaker and six MPs dead.
A large amount of the media is under the state control and much of the rest is bound by stringent regulations and practices self-censorship. This gives the incumbent a major advantage in elections.
How did we get here?: There has been a land known as Armenia since at least 600 BC and it has been self governing on several occasions in its history. More recently the term Armenian has become synonymous with the Christian community in the Caucuses, as distinct from the other Muslim groups. As such the definitions of where Armenia was became fuzzier – much as all sides would like to claim differently the truth is that there were Christians and Muslims living side by side across much of the southern Caucus and north eastern Turkey.
In 1918-1922 a number of things happened simultaneously. In Turkey up to a million Armenians were killed in an act of brutal ethnic cleansing which many governments are still wary of calling genocide. Those that escaped fled Turkey to the north where the Soviet revolution was causing a different sort of chaos. Seizing this opportunity, a group of Armenians formed a short-lived independent republic of Armenia – and quickly found themselves invaded and subsumed into the Soviet Union.
The early Soviets had a policy of “Korenizatsiya” or nationalist autonomy based upon lingo-ethnic groups within the framework of a Soviet superstate. In line with this policy they rather arbitrarily divided the southern Caucuses into two countries: “Armenia” for the Christians and “Azerbaijan” for the Muslims. They then went a step further and created the semi-autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan for “ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan” and placed it under Azeri control.
When the Soviet Union collapsed both countries declared independence; Armenia being amongst the first and most enthusiastic to do so. Neither they nor Azerbaijan were happy with their borders and when Nagorno-Karabakh announced it wanted to split from Azerbaijan and join Armenia (a state of affairs which had been on the cards since the Soviet grip on the area started to weaken in 1987 – if not before) war was inevitable. A ceasefire was finally declared in 1994 and the two countries have remained in a state of frozen conflict ever since. Nagorno-Karabakh has declared itself independent, and although its sovereignty is not recognised by any country (not even Armenia) Armenia does protect and support it to a certain (and hotly debated) extent.
Who’s in charge?: The Republican party in various guises has been in charge for over 12 years. It is variously described as a centre-right party, a nationalist party or as a “kings party” or vessel for the political elite and vested intrests of the status quo. The figure of Robert Kocharyan (President of Nagorno-Karabakh 1994-1997, Prime Minister of Armenia 1998, President of Armenia 1998-2008) still looms large over the party, and there is thought to be a power struggle within the Republican party between his supporters and supporters of the current President Serzh Sargasyn.
Sargasyn won the presidential elections in 2008 (Kocharyan being ineligible to run again) on the first round with 52% of the vote. The second placed candidate with 21%, was another former President – Petrossian. His party, the centrist Pan-Armenian national movement, were powerful in the 1990s but now purely exist as a vehicle for him – and has no seats in parliament.
Following the 2007 elections the Republican party does not quite have an outright majority in Parliament (64 of 131 seats) but the vast majority of the other parties represented also support their government. These include the second placed liberal centre-right Prosperous Armenia (18 seats) who are led by a former world arm wresting champion, third placed socialist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (16 seats) and fourth placed centrist Rule of Law (9 seats). The last of these is somewhat less supportive of the Government than the other two: they ran a candidate for President against Sargasyn (who came third and obtained 18% of the vote) and occasionally voicing criticisms of the Government – particularly its conduct of elections.
The largest opposition party in Parliament is the Liberal Heritage party with 7 seats – although there are also 17 independents.
However by far the largest opposition groups secured no seats in Parliament in 2007 – a state of affairs which led to the allegations of vote rigging and street protests. The largest of these groups is the umbrella opposition grouping: the Republic Party. It is led by Aram Sargsyan – no relation of the current President but the brother of the Prime Minster who was murdered in 1999 and is also a former Prime Minister in his own right (everybody who is anybody in Armenian politics was briefly a Prime Minister in the 1990s). The fact that this organisation only officially achieved 1.5% of the vote in 2007 stretched credibility – particularly when many thousands of people came out on the street to protest the result. The Republic party is also supported by the conservative National Unity Party, the Communist Party and Petrossian’s Pan Armenian Movement. None of these groups won any seats either.
What does it look like?: Mountain pasture land with fast flowing rivers and forests:
Mt Ararat is technically in Turkey but is visible from most of Armenia and is considered a symbol of Armenia.
What are the issues?: The main issues for the opposition are democracy and the suppression of freedoms. Relations with Azerbaijan and the state of Nagorno-Karabakh are a national obsession. Armenia would very much like to take advantage of its location to become a major hub for pan-Caucasian trading and the location of lucrative oil pipelines. The frozen conflict and the militarized border with Azerbaijan preclude that.
Receiving less attention from the politicians but of great importance to the public is the economy. Armenia went through a process of radical liberalisation and it has been a mixed blessing: the economy has boomed in some areas and stalled in others – and social security has lessened.
A good source of impartial information is: There are huge problems in Armenia with media bias – and opposition publications and expatriate organisations have biases of their own. That said I’ve found good articles on Armenia live who archive Armenian journalism from a number of different sources and also has the benefit of been in English. Western coverage of the post-soviet space in general verges on the hysterical and overemphasises the geopolitical.
Central Asian Survey is a fantastic academic journal that covers the region. It is available online for a fee. Archived copies are available via Jstor (also behind a paywall).
A good book is: Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War is a very good and fair account of the Armenian and Azeri political situation and the ongoing saga of NK.
When are the next elections?: Legislative elections are due in 2011, Presidential elections are due in 2013.