English translation with the help of Maya Adivi
YEREVAN, ARMENIA. "Work, it is work we need," these are the words of Armen, a man with a typical Armenian name; his opinions are perhaps equally typical in this small mountainous country.
For Armen himself there is no need, he tells. He has worked in the same small shoemaker business for over 30 years. However he does think that it is time for the authorities to begin thinking about the country`s inhabitants.
“Armenians need jobs,” he says, “if we are to prevent the large labor emigration that goes to Russia.” Armen is correct; up to 19% of the country's population lives abroad, and the country has one of the highest net emigration rates. A huge numbers of citizens are unaccounted for.
April 2nd is election day in Armenia, but Armen doesn’t know what is the solution to the country`s problems, or which party could actually have it. This is often the tendency in this country, where the political landscape seems to many as a highly fragmented and chaotic system. Not to forget about the overall tendency around the globe, of people losing faith in democracy, the system and their politicians.
But it has not always been so. In 1990, Armenia became the first Soviet Republic to elect a non-communist party to government, but this positive outlook did not last for long. Ever since, the country has been struggling with a devastating war with neighboring Azerbaijan, economic stagnation, and last but not least, political disasters. The key political disaster occurred when the country's Prime Minister, President of Parliament, and 6 other government officials and MPs were shot and killed inside the country's parliament. The attack was classified as a terrorist attack, but the investigation was not fruitful, and the motives of the attackers remain unknown even 15 years later.
The war that never ended.
It is the war that has been the most damaging to Armenia. The conflict between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan started while both countries were part of the Soviet Union. The controversy is about Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan with an overwhelming Armenian majority. Armenians wanted a merger of Karabakh and Armenia, but nationalist movements in Azerbaijan opposed this strongly.
After the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent from Azerbaijan, and a full-scale war erupted between the parties. The war was difficult, with heavy civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees on both sides. Many areas were ethnically cleansed on both sides.
In 1994, the parties signed a ceasefire, but the two neighbors have not reached a final peace agreement, yet. Armenia won the war militarily, but the war and the subsequent blockade from Azerbaijan and Turkey has hit the country's economy hard. Some fighting does occur every year, with the bloodiest clashes since the ceasefire occurring in April 2016, with over 60 killed. Economically and sociologically there are serious costs to being constantly prepared for war.
The war, or peace, rather, is what the oppositional party ANC wants the conversation during these elections to be about. I met Vladimir Karapetian, head of the party's foreign committee, in one of Yerevan`s districts during his election campaign. The district is a so-called "sleeping district" and is not exactly brimming with life. Except for a few elderly men playing chess under the spring sun, there are not many people out in the street. Vladimir tries to reach out to the voters who are indoors through a megaphone, which makes for a surrealistic picture as we are going through Yerevan’s empty backstreets. Whether or not Vladimir`s words are falling on deaf ears, he is nevertheless clear on the importance of peace for Armenia.
“We must engage in peace talks with Azerbaijan, and normalize relations with Turkey,” explains Vladimir. “Should the Armenian economy grow, we must have open borders. Currently, the borders of Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, and after the Russian-Georgian war, it is also problematic to export this way. Without jobs there will soon be no more Armenians in Armenia,” he swears.
Vladimir is furious with the current government, which he believes has not been legally elected, and is not for the benefit of anyone other than themselves. When asked how to solve the current problem of corruption, he replies that this change will happen automatically if power were to shift to the ANC. “Look at Georgia,” says Vladimir. “There, Saakashvili has changed the system overnight. The Georgians have done well.”
Authoritarianism and use of force. Armenia`s president, Serzh Sargsyan, who Vladimir mentions, is the second president from Republican Party, which has been leading the country for a total of 18 years. His predecessor, Robert Kocharyan, left office voluntarily after serving for his maximum two terms. Kocharyan`s period in office is considered rather controversial, and has been characterized by allegations of widespread election fraud, as well as more conspiratorial accusations from the opposition, of a connection with the previously mentioned Parliament assassination.
What is not a conspiratorial accusation, however, is the current government's use of excessive and arbitrary force against protestors, which led to eight civilian deaths in 2008. The demonstrations occurred in conjuction with the presidential election in which the current president, Serzh Sargsyan, was elected for the first time. The elections were contested, and both Armenian and international observers pointed out major and minor irregularities.
Armenia's first president and leader of the ANC, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, a man who is himself a controversial figure in Armenian politics, was back in the public eye. In the 2008 elections he came in second place, with just over 20% of the votes. Ter-Petrosyan, a national hero of both the Karabakh and Independence Movements, was also accused of election fraud during his presidency. After the elections, he ended up using armored troops against his own people in the demonstrations that followed. Despite that, after the 2008 elections he still urged his own followers to take to the street to demand new elections.
Armenians` three traumas. Lene Wetterland, from the Norwegian Helsinki committee, was herself present during the demonstrations in 2008.
At her office in Oslo, she shows me chaotic videos of how a peaceful demonstration evolved into a frantic retreat when the police decided to break up the crowds. Lene, like everyone else in the crowd, had to run away from the police. While running, she encountered several bleeding civilians; victims of the police batons. After a week of demonstrations, the authorities had enough; they were to be broken up. When the day was over, there were eight civilian causalities, as well as two killed policemen. Additionally, a dozen cars were torched and several shops had been looted - the president declared a state of emergency, with press censorship and a ban on public gatherings.
“The Armenian people have three traumas,” Lene tells me. “The Armenian Genocide in 1915, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and last but not least, the current government and especially the tragic outcome of March 1st.”
Police dispersal of demonstrators in 2008 was characterized by poor coordination and unnecessary use of force, but it appears that the police have become more professional in dealing with protesters since, Lene Wetterland tells me. The police allow people to some demonstrate up to a certain extent, but they still repress demonstrations they think have gone too far. Unnecessary force is still used, often in a way that just as easily affects innocent passers-by as demonstrators, but it’s not to the same extent as in previous years. It is also not uncommon for police to use unidentified police officers in civilian clothes during such demonstrations, either as provocateurs, or as pure violence brigades. In this way the police seems to have become more professional.
From a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system. Armenia will be holding an election on April 2nd; an election that marks the transition from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system. The opposition has accused the change to the Constitution of being a mere spectacle, with the EU and other international organizations seen as spectators. It is also seen as a great chance for the current president, who is now in his second and final term, to consolidate his power as a coming prime minister after the election, not unlike what Erdogan is trying to do in neighboring Turkey.
“It's just nonsense,” says a smiling Armen Ashotyan, the Vice-President of the Republican Party. The burly man lights his third cigarette, before we`re even halfway through the half hour interview. The former Sports and Education Minister apologizes, he is stressed as he will soon be meeting with the President to discuss the election campaign he is leading.
“The new constitution is a good foundation for building a society based on a European model. There will be a more balanced political system,” he says.
But changes do not happen quickly here, he insists. “Our goal is a modern European system, but based on traditional Christian values.” Ashotyan admits that Armenia is struggling with common problems such as corruption, unemployment, and large emigration rates. He says that the country needs improvement when it comes to rule of law and social justice. However, Armen points out that the biggest challenge is security. Armenians` continued existence in Armenia must be ensured.
Playing on fear. “The government is not opposed to a peace agreement with Azerbaijan,” says Armen, “but Nagorno-Karabakh is important to us. We need international guarantees that NK will remain independent, and only then can we start negotiations. It is a conflict that is about rights,” Armen tells me, and not about faith or territory.
The conflict with Turkey, and the subsequent closure of the borders, also remains a clear economic obstacle for Armenia.
“The problem is Turkish aggression,” he says. “The region needs a more predictable Erdogan to stabilize the region.” He is pessimistic about the developments in the neighboring country, which he doesn’t want to call democratic.
It is precisely the conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan that are actively used to take focus away from domestic problems, according to Lene Wetteland. Instead of discussing social issues, the debate is often shifted towards the neighboring countries and the great danger that they represent. The Government actively plays on people`s fear, with an ”us or them" rhetoric. For example, the fact that over 60% of Armenian women have experienced domestic violence is considered a topic that proper Armenians should not discuss.
Bought votes, dead votes, fake votes. Back at the headquarters of the Republican Party, Armen suddenly pauses. “Do you smoke?” he asks, before apologizing, and reaching for the phone to ask his secretary to bring a new pack of cigarettes.
“The new electoral law is a great success,” says Armen, with an extra emphasis on GREAT success. “It is a perfect base for the electoral process. It is now theoretically impossible to cheat.”
But cheating is just what one can do, according to Lousineh Hakobyan, Head of Europe in Law Association, one of several non-governmental organizations engaged in election observation in Armenia. I met Lousineh on a busy Friday morning, two weeks before the elections, while the organization was in full swing with training sessions for the election observers.
“There are several ways to cheat during the elections,” explains Lousineh. “We have a new system these elections, where one registers the voters and their fingerprints electronically on election day.” The system was tested in February, a test that revealed that people can vote in several different places under different names. There is no cross-reference in the system. “A cross-referencing of the system would prevent what is likely the most common cheating method, the use of identification cards of the deceased and émigrés. The Armenian registers are poorly updated.” According to Lousineh, there are 2.7 million people eligible to vote in these elections. This number seems completely unrealistic in a population of 3 million.
Nevertheless, there is a range of measures in place to prevent falsifications, both public and private. For the first time, a list will be published of those who voted, so that one can check whether people who are dead or absent during the elections voted. NGOs also operate a voluntary register of those who didn’t vote, in order to check whether these people`s votes are still being used.
Lousineh explains that during this year's election there will be two observers per polling station in 75% of the country's polling stations. They wanted to cover more ground, but it was not possible due to lack of funding. The money for this comes mainly from foreign NGOs and the EU. They will focus on areas where there are more voters, and thus cover a larger share of the population. There will also be camera surveillance in 75% of the polling stations.
Extensive purchase of votes is still widespread, so regardless, the elections will not be fair. The price for one vote is reported to be everything between 50 and 100 $, a significant sum in a country where 30% of the population (2013) lives below the poverty line. However, representatives of the Republican Party call this practice “giving donations”. The state also exercises pressure on government employees to vote for the Republican Party. One would consider this issue negligible in anonymous elections, but some believe in a widespread rumor that there will be cameras in the pen used to mark the vote, thus revealing how one has voted.
Lousineh does not think that her job makes the elections fairer, but she thinks it will make it easier to discover cheating and corruption. The problem is that the electoral commission doesn’t look at their complaints. She explains that this is due to a lack of will among politicians to hand over the power they have gained. “Armenia needs better and stronger parties. Now it is going nowhere, so people lose their will, even the will to remain in the country.”
Revolution. In July last year an armed group of nationalists and war veterans occupied one of Yerevan`s police stations. The group demanded a tougher line against Azerbaijan, and the release of political prisoners. Their attack shows the complexity of the country, and the hard road to peace. Although the group's support is marginal among ordinary people, there were big demonstrations in support of them. One of those who supported the occupiers was Artur Sargsyan. Sargsyan delivered foot to the terrorists, and was detained along with them. Due to poor health, he was not imprisoned initially. In February of this year he was eventually arrested. On the 16th of March he died of a heart attack, after being on hunger strike through the duration of his imprisonment. His death sparked large demonstrations in the capital, in his memory.
During the demonstrations I spoke with a group of young women. Victoria Bagoyan, an English teacher, said she was only there to show respect for Artur. She does not believe the protests will lead to change. She further complains that the government does not think about the country, but only about themselves. However, unlike many of her friends, she would like to stay in the country. After all, it is her home.
Her friends, Lilit and Narin, do not completely agree with her; they do believe in change. They believe the country must be united, which can only happen if people really try.
“Revolution,” says one of them, and the rest nod in agreement