By Talin Baghdadlian
In a part of the world largely ignored by international media, silence and apathy appear to be waning for the average citizen. Armenia, a country that has not experienced a sustained independence and autonomy since the mid-14th century, ruled by the Ottoman and Russian Empires and subsequently the Soviet Union until its collapse. Today Armenia is experiencing an apparent political awakening, one followed and supported by the large, politically active Armenian Diaspora.
This year’s election, held on February 18, had a turnout of about 60 percent of its 3.1 million population. The two main candidates were the incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan and Raffi Hovannisian (two other popular candidates were set to run as well, but, under suspicious circumstances, ended up withdrawing). While the anti-Sargsyan vote had a major presence, an election observer for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) held there was an absence of any clear policy platform:
“There is a real lack of clarity on the difference in the two men’s political platforms […] The opposition candidates were all essentially campaigning on a platform of ‘hey, I’m not Serzh Sargsyan.’ ”
Hovannisian ended up receiving 37 percent of the popular vote, while Sargsyan won with a commanding 59 percent. According to Harut Sassounian, an Armenian-American analyst and publisher of The California Courier, had the field been more competitive, Hovannisian was set to gain no more than 15-20 percent of the vote. Had all potential candidates been up for election, it’s likely the decision would’ve been the same.
Hovannisian refused to accept the election outcome, and, citing election fraud, brought a case to the Constitutional Court of Armenia. According to the OSCE election observer quoted above, who was stationed in a rural area, some election fraud (e.g. implausibly high voter turnout) was present, but these were an anomaly among the other voting stations. In fact, the official statement by OSCE claims that the election “was generally well-administered and was characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms.” Hovannisian simply disagrees.
Soon after the election results were declared, Hovannisian began organizing rallies around the country. Several hundred people would show up, especially to the rallies held in the capital of Yerevan; support was at a much higher level than in previous post-election protests. In contrast with past demonstrations, the police did nothing to forcibly break them up.
At these events, Hovannisian has commented on how poorly the Armenian citizenry is being treated, how the time has come to stand up to corruption and poor governance, and how the current government has been wronged.
Nearly a month after Election Day, on March 14, the Constitutional Court issued the verdictconfirming Sargsyan’s electoral victory.
Inauguration Day is tomorrow (April 9), and Hovannisian’s hunger strike since March 10 has since been amended.
It’s clear that Sargsyan will enjoy another term as president, and he maintains that the same policies will continue. Internationally, he will maintain positive relations with Europe and the United States as well as very strong relations with Russia. And little will change domestically: Sargsyan’s priorities will be job creation and the health of the economy.
While in some respects Armenian politics will continue as usual, the Armenian citizenry and the Armenian Diaspora must note that Armenians are no longer afraid to speak up. According to Sassounian, “They are demanding that their voice be heard.”
What will the citizens demand next time around? What will the political elites deliver? This could be a crucial turning point for Armenian citizens as they continue to demand more transparency in the government and more individual freedom.
As an American-Armenian and a member of the Armenian Diaspora, I personally have a stake in what happens in Armenia. These rallies have shown the international Armenian community that a sizeable portion of the Armenian population feels a sense of political obligation. Armenians are seizing opportunities to stand up and be heard; this is a most encouraging sign.
Talin Baghdadlian is a Program Assistant at the EastWest Institute's New York Center.