Armenia: Facing the Ides of March

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Armenia, Yerevan)

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Developments in Armenia for the month of March only continued to reflect the profound polarization of the country as the 2 April parliamentary election approached.  Yet even this inherent polarization was deepened further by a wave of political violence, posing a new “Ides of March”.

Domestic  Policy: Political violence: past & present

Every March, the Armenians commemorate the tragic anniversary of the post-election confrontation between police and protesters in March 2008. At least ten people died and may more wounded after protests sparked an excessive crackdown by riot police.  But that past political violence soon became much more pressing when a series of clashes between rival political parties escalated through the month. Triggered by the onset of a heated election campaign as the country’s 2 April parliamentary election approached, the wave of political violence was composed of two distinct rivalries.

The first, and the most aggressive, confrontation was between the young supporters and members of the Tsarukian bloc and those from the ruling Republican Party. It should be mentioned, that Tsarukian, an oligarch who challenged the government party in the last election, leads the second largest political force in the country, formerly known as the Prosperous Armenia Party. The violence between these two parties came as little surprise, however, as there is a long record of earlier clashes between the two parties in the previous election campaign.  But this time the intensity of the rivalry between the Republican Party and loyalists of the Tsarukian bloc has seriously deepened. 

Moreover, this political tension is exacerbated by the personal animosity, after President Serzh Sarkisian, the Republican Party leader, publicly humiliated Tsarukian and forced him to retreat from the political arena.  But the recent return of Tsarukian and the growing support for his party has sparked some fresh concerns within the ruling Republicans about an unexpectedly serious challenge to its bid to maintain its majority in the next parliament.

The second element of this political violence was more sporadic, although no less serious, and involved attacks by Republican Party supporters targeting the opposition in a display of intolerance of any political interlopers.  This political violence included incidents of intimidation and direct attacks, generally reaffirming the intensity of the escalating nature of political rivalries, and also prompting statements of concern from the European Union and other members of the diplomatic corps in Armenia.

In late March, another incident, not related to political violence but with political implications, took place. The former Nagorno-Kararakh army commander Samvel Babayan was arrested and charged with weapons smuggling. Although not a public politician, Babayan was widely seen as the power broker behind the election bloc of former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and former Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, and his arrest was seen as a setback to their political chances, despite the bloc’s already meager public support.

Once the current president completes his term, power will shift to the prime minister as the new “head of state”

As an essential element of Armenia’s amended constitutional transformation to a full parliamentary system, once the current president completes his term, power will shift to the prime minister as the new “head of state”, demoting the presidency to a ceremonial post.  This has sparked some concern recently, as incumbent Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has become increasingly vague on his plans after completing his final second term as president in 2016.  And in an interview in late March, has more openly hinted at continuing in power, openly stating that he intends to play a role, in some capacity, in ensuring the security of the Armenian people.

Economy: Statistics don’t lie

Official statistics released in March are not reassuring, as the outlook for the Armenian economy remains marked with the anemic growth and the mounting debt. According to the National Statistical Service (NSS), for example, the Armenian economy grew by a mere 0.2 percent in 2016, despite vehement assertions by the Armenian government officials of promises higher growth.

This was also evident in the expansion of the country’s sovereign debt, which expanded by some $27.25 million in the month of January, to reach a new record high of $5.96 billion.  This debt figure was particularly serious, as under Armenian law, the government cannot borrow more than 60% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a limit that would directly hinder its planning for a fresh Eurobond offer of between $500-700 million.

But the country did see some improvement in the terms of its trade with Russia, with an increase in the overall volume of bilateral trade of about 15 percent in 2016.  Totaling nearly $1.4 billion last year, Russia has recently surpassed the European Union as Armenia’s largest trading partner.  Much of this increase was due to a 51% expansion of Armenian exports to Russia, although that jump was a one-time increase, reflecting temporary re-export opportunities from the crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey.

Economics also played an important role in the country’s political discourse, as the rival candidates increasingly offered promises of the economic growth and prosperity.  Setting the stage in early March, the usually credible Prime Minister Karen Karapetian raised expectations dangerously high with his own pledges of attracting large-scale investments in Armenia.  Yet the sheer size of his claims, which included some 350 nationwide investment projects worth a combined $3.2 billion, raised doubts.  For example, such a figure is somewhat undermined by the fact that the entire Armenian state budget for 2017 was less than $3 billion.

Foreign Policy: Seeking a more balanced foreign policy

After several years of mounting and increasingly dangerous over-dependence on Russia, there is a belated recognition of the inherent limits in the Armenian relationship with Russia.  And against the backdrop of a serious crisis in this relations, magnified by Moscow’s arms sales to rival Azerbaijan, there is a new challenge to the asymmetry and arrogance that has come to define the terms of that relationship.  As a policy response, and in an effort to restore a greater degree of balance and more options to Armenian foreign policy, there were several positive developments in March. 

Most notably, in a rare “second chance” to regain and repair relations with the European Union, Armenian officials “initialed” a new Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to deepen political and economic ties.  Although significantly less extensive than Armenia’s earlier Association Agreement, which it was forced to sacrifice in 2013, the new agreement reflects “strong commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law” and deepens Armenia-EU cooperation in several key areas, including energy, transport and environment protection, as well as by offering “new opportunities in trade and investments.”

In addition, in their first conversation, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian briefed the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a wide range of issues, including bilateral relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  This was also followed by the ceremonial opening of a new U.S.-funded military training center for the Armenian peacekeeping brigade, representing the latest in a series of the deepening military-to-military ties between Armenia and the United States.