On April 2, Armenia will elect a new parliament, but it is also the day on which absolute power will be granted to the National Assembly. The elections are the first to be conducted since the adoption of the Constitutional changes, transforming the state from a semi-presidential into a parliamentarian republic. However only after the next presidential election in 2018, will parliament acquire total control of all policy branches, including the defence sector and foreign affairs. It will be up to the legislative body to nominate the Prime Minister and to form the government. A single party or block would need to cross the 54% threshold of votes in order to be in charge of executive power. A number of political parties and/or blocks are running in the election but, despite popular discontent due to the significantly deteriorated economic situation and some awkward foreign policy decisions, there is a good chance that the ruling party of President Serz Sarkisian – Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) – will remain in power and be able to form the government in coalition with some other political forces.
The difficult internal balances
It is well known that the political transition from Soviet to democratic governance has been a painful and drawn out process in the post-Soviet space. Armenia is no exception. Over the years, the current President Sarkisian pledged economic development, a fight against corruption, greater democratic governance and an enhanced relationship with the European Union (EU). Today, one can easily argue that he has failed on all counts. The country is ruled by personalized networks through patterns of strongly centralized government. These networks include different political parties, oligarchs and/or technocrats. Ordinary people suffer from the corruption of the oligarchs entrenched in the national political system, as well as in various enterprises.
Within this context and in order to build up some hope for change, at some point – and arguably at the Kremlin’s insistence – Serz Sarkisian appointed a new Prime Minister, Karen Karapetian, one of the senior executives of the Russian gas company, Gazprom. Addressing the of RPA congress last November, President Sarkisian said Karapetian would maintain his post as Prime Minister after the parliamentary election of 2 April. However, how long he will serve the country in that capacity is not clear, as there is some speculation that Sarkisian will most probably try to take over the post of prime minister in 2018 when his second term expires.
The influence of Russia
As ever, all will also depend on Russia and whom Moscow will regard as its main ally – President Sarkisian or Prime Minister Karapetian. It seems the Kremlin would prefer the current Prime Minister Karen Karapetian to remain in power in the long run. The latter’s official visit to Russia and his meeting with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was quite showy and rich in new initiatives on how to enlarge Russian investments and business interests in Armenia. More generally, the Kremlin is trying to adjust its relationship with Armenia, as discontent with Russian policy in the South Caucasus is mounting in Yerevan. In particular, the asymmetric relationship between the two has turned out to be one of the driving forces of discontent. Because of the security concerns related to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Yerevan was forced into a military alliance with Russia. However, Moscow did not limit this alliance to security issues, but used it to ensure Armenia’s full-fledged political and economic dependence on the Kremlin.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia, like other Soviet Socialist Republics, became a Newly Independent State. Yet in the last two decades, it has turned into a Russian post-Soviet colony. A clear manifestation of this was when Russian President Vladimir Putin forced his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian to renounce signing the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union (EU) in favour of joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The decision was taken even though the Armenian authorities had declared that Armenia’s entrance into the EEU would inevitably cause enormous problems to the state economy because of the structural differences between the two. Yerevan sacrificed four years of difficult negotiations with the EU in favour of the EEU, but was not rewarded for this ‘choice’. Quite the contrary.
Armenian households pay the highest electricity fees in the post-Soviet space, and household gas prices exceed even those paid by consumers in Ukraine. Beyond electricity, Armenia is completely dependent on Russia also in the gas (petrol) sector. Gazprom is the only supplier of gas to Gazprom Armenia (also owned by Russians). In 2013, the company increased gas tariffs for Armenians raising them to $270 per 1000 cubic meters. Gazprom also took control of the Armenian section of an Iranian gas pipeline, the only alternative to Russian gas in Armenia. Furthermore, Moscow controls the Armenian railway network as well as significant parts of the Armenian telecommunications network. In addition to electricity and gas dependence, Armenia is economically dependent on Russia as its currency is tied to the Russian rouble.
Bringing Armenia’s economy closer to Russia worsened the country’s socio-economic situation. After Armenia entered the Eurasian Economic Union, the country witnessed a significant drop in production and trade volume and a fall in foreign direct investments (FDI). This is because Armenia had to raise import and export tariffs to match those of fellow EEU members Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. This has surely affected Armenia’s trade relations with other economic partners (especially EU Member States) negatively.
Difficult chance for change
There is also another reason why Moscow would prefer to have its “man” as Armenia’s Prime Minister. In the wake of the April 2016 Armenia-Azerbaijan fighting, Russia developed the so called “Lavrov Plan”, which envisages deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karbakh.
Unfortunately, the upcoming elections will not bring about any significant change in terms of the political transition in Armenia, as the old political elite will continue to govern the country. As said, the state is ruled by the networks of self-enclosed circles of interests that continuous to ignore the growing demand for change. In the foreign policy field, people will also witness more of the same, i.e. further political and economic dependence on Russia. However, taking into account the economic difficulties in the everyday life of ordinary people and the mounting frustration with Russian policymaking in the South Caucasus, it remains to be seen when the anger of Armenians will explode into a mass protest. For now, one thing is clear: the gap between the political elites and the ordinary citizens is enormous and dangerously growing.
*The opinions expressed in this article are exclusively attributable to the author