POST-ELECTION ARMENIA: CHOICES AND CHALLENGES

Today's Zaman, Turkey
Feb 27 2013

Armenia's Feb. 18 presidential election saw the re-election of the
incumbent, Serzh Sarksyan, who won 58 percent of the vote. Though the
status quo remains unchanged, the post-election period looks set to be
very interesting both for the country and for the future of the region.

Before the election, the primary focus for the public was -- and
still is -- the representation of Armenia in the run-up to 2018, the
centenary of the country's first independence. For the government,
the concern was how to respond to the electorate's needs and how to
communicate an attractive vision of the country's future. Business
elites along with the general public were concerned with how the
government would contribute to economic development, which has been
weak in recent years.

These various concerns raised are "declared challenges," but there are
also "undeclared challenges" -- i.e., ones that have been less overtly
stated. The geopolitical environment in the region and beyond could
change in ways that force Armenia to make important choices about
its future. Currently, Yerevan seems to be increasingly dependent
on Moscow, with the Kremlin forcing Armenia to participate in the
Eurasian Union initiative. The other key question is whether the
Armenian leadership will be ready to move towards a resolution of
the almost 25-year-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.

On every issue, the leadership has choices to make -- which battles
to fight, which alliances to foster and which visions to follow for
the country's future. One unanswered question is whether President
Sarksyan wants to see a successor in 2018, while another is the kind
of political legacy that he wants to leave.

Unsuccessful 'game changer'

On the eve of the presidential election, Sarksyan seemed
unchallengeable -- both Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the former president and
leader of the Armenian National Congress, a coalition of opposition
parties, and Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party,
decided not to run. Ter-Petrosyan's decision sounded the death knell
for the main opposition coalition. The birth of new political parties
now seems likely, along with a new alliance among opposition forces.

Tsarukyan's decision was likely calculated to win favor with Sarksyan,
guaranteeing him a spot in the current government in the event
of a reshuffle, whereby he could help create a favorable business
environment for himself and his allies.

The only surprise result was that Raffi Hovannisian was the runner-up,
with 37 percent of the vote. After the election, the international
media focused on Hovannisian as a realistic challenger. The speech
in which Hovannisian declared himself the winner of the election
to protesters in Liberty Square who opposed the election results,
proclaiming that "this is not a fight between Raffi and Serzh
[Sarksyan] but about the future of the Republic of Armenia and its
citizens," was much discussed among international observers. At first
glance, the statement is fascinating and what one might expect from a
strong, charismatic leader. But in actual fact, Hovannisian's campaign
benefitted from a clever use of social media, which he deployed to
great effect, rather than his leadership credentials. A closer look at
Hovannisian's political portfolio suggests that he is not a "desired"
leader of the population.

First of all, Hovannisian independently entered his candidacy; his
party, the Heritage Party, of which he is the leader, did not back
him and before the election he was not a favorite among the other
candidates. It is interesting that he won 37 percent of the vote in
this election, compared to main opposition leader Ter-Petrosyan's
21.5 percent in 2008, when Ter-Petrosyan had a strong and accessible
support base.

Second, Hovannisian is not the open-minded, charismatic leader
that Armenians want and need to challenge the "Karabakh clan"
-- a group of political leaders from Karabakh, including former
President Robert Kocharian and incumbent Sarksyan. The views of
Hovannisian are more hard-line than those of Sarksyan. Hovannisian
supports the recognition of the 1915 tragedy as genocide and doesn't
pursue rapprochement with Turkey. He also supports the recognition
of a separatist Nagorno-Karabakh entity, which means destroying
any peaceful resolution of the conflict through negotiations with
Azerbaijan. In contrast, President Sarksyan deemed the recognition
of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh entity political adventurism,
lately declaring that "at the present moment, greater adventurism
[than recognizing Karabakh's independence] could not exist," the
local media reported.

Many people saw the assassination attempt on presidential candidate
Paruyr Hayrikyan at the end of January, just over two weeks before the
election, as a possible "game changer," but in fact it was not. In
this regard, the hoped-for "game changer" -- i.e., something that
would mark the end of the current leadership and bring a breath of
fresh air to national politics -- failed to materialize. The only
consequence was that the undecided voters turned away from Sarksyan
towards Hovannisian.

Challenges for post-election period Armenia is now in the throes of
post-election euphoria. Developments in the wrong direction could
give rise to tragic consequences. Now, Hovannisian has started a
new campaign called "BAREVolution," an Armenian-English word meaning
"greetings to the revolution." He plans to hold a series of rallies
in the regions in Armenia before returning to Yerevan for another
one. His unorthodox politics have support from the opposition. It is
tricky to discern exactly who is behind all of this as his supporters.

If we look for a real game changer in terms of geopolitics, we might
look to the debate ongoing since last year on civilian flights from
Yerevan to the airport reconstructed by Armenia near Khojaly, the
site of the 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis. So to stop the opposition,
Sarksyan could launch these flights, which would really be political
adventurism. Azerbaijan's reaction could raise patriotic sentiments in
Armenia, causing the opposition to lose momentum. On the other hand,
such an action could prove highly problematic, both domestically and
internationally, and for Azerbaijan, too.

It seems that when the leadership does not properly respond to the
declared challenges -- the ones issued by the people -- and instead
plays political games full of bluffs and adventurism, there is much
at stake. Such political maneuvers could be a real "game changer"
for the region, with a serious risk of war.


From: Baghdasarian