Armenia’s dubious election

So Armenia had a Presidential election last week. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian — the establishment candidate — won in the first round, supposedly with 53% of the vote.

I’m not much of a prognosticator. I do it sometimes, but I’m not very good at it. Still, here it is: two weeks before the election I made this comment on my home blog:

Armenia’s Presidential election is on Tuesday. I’ve hardly blogged about this, because it’s pretty much a done deal — the ruling party controls all media, has a massive machine in place, and is ready and willing to stuff ballot boxes and juggle numbers if necessary. My prediction: Serzh, the establishment candidate whose ugly face has been everywhere for the last few weeks, will win in the first round by 55%.

I was off by 2%. Amusing bit of trivia: apparently Serzh’s supposed percentage was just .01% different from the winning percentage of President Saakashivili in neighboring Georgia, just a month ago. 53%, boys — just enough so nobody can ask for a recount. More than that looks greedy!

So what does it mean?
At the moment I’d say, not much.

Oh, the various opposition parties are very upset. The leading opposition candidate — former President Levon Ter-Petrosian — has cried foul, and he’s gotten pretty good turnout for rallies in the capital the last few days. (Non-violent rallies, thank goodness.) Tens of thousands of people have come out, every day for the last week, to protest. A number of diplomats and a couple of other officials have condemned the elections, and have promptly been fired. Various foreign embassies, including the US, have pointedly refrained from commenting on the election or congratulating the new President. The OSCE has issued a very carefully worded statement.

But it’s hard to see where this goes. The folks who run Armenia’s government? They aren”t going to call another election. Nor will they ever acknowledge that they stole this one. I don’t think Ter-Petrosian is quite crazy enough to call for an insurrection, and I don’t think it would succeed if he did.

Is Serzh Sarkisian all that bad? Well, he and his buddy Robert Kocharian have been running Armenia for the last decade — the current election was just so they could swap jobs, with Serzh taking over the Presidency from Kocharian and Kocharian becoming Prime Minister after Serzh. (Kocharian is seen as the dominant member of the partnership, though there’s speculation that might change now.) And it hasn’t been a bad decade for Armenia. Lots of corruption and whatnot, but also lots of economic growth. Oligarchs and mafia, but that’s true in most of the former USSR. The stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh hasn’t changed, but it hasn’t gotten worse either. And the leadership has managed to stay friendly with Russia, neighboring Iran, and the West all at the same time, which is pretty impressive when you think about it.

Key point: the average Armenian is somewhat better off. There are plenty of problems in Armenia, goodness knows, but I don’t see the sort of festering resentment that leads to governments being suddenly overthrown.

Mind, in the long term I think Sarkisian and Kocharian are letting the country slowly drift towards a second Nagorno-Karabakh war. But that’s not going to happen for a while (if it ever does), and I don’t think it’s a major factor right now.

So, having just said I’m not much of a prognosticator, here’s my prediction: there will be more protests, but not much will come of them. Eventually they’ll fade, leaving behind a scrim of lingering frustration and disillusionment. Serzh will be President. And things in the lower Caucasus will roll along, at least for the next little while.

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About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

5 thoughts on “Armenia’s dubious election

  1. I admit, things have gotten better in Armenia since I first arrived in 2001. But how much better and better for who? Those young people that are educated and willing to work can have a pretty decent life, if they are fortunate enough to get a job. Unemployment is very high still and unless you are young, somewhat western educated and willing to work long hours and weekends the wages are low, very low.

    Because of the oligarchs and their building projects (many of which may be money laundering schemes) in down town Yerevan, the real-estate market is booming. This is good for those that own but for many others it is a horrible mess. (Some are selling thir apartments and moving out of town and living off the money, simply because they cannot find jobs and cannot afford the higher prices for everything.) An apartment that would have cost $200 to rent in 2001 is now closer to $1000.

    Prices for everything else have gone up too due in part to the fact that the President has not resolved the Karabakh problem. (Ter-Petrosyan was nudged out of office on the grounds that he wanted to resolve it. Now the Government is saying the whole thing is his fault…) Prices are also higher because the import of many things (like sugar) is controlled by the oligarchs. One oligarch holds the right to import sugar and can set the price at almost what ever he wants.

    What is even worse is that the Dram, the local currency, is being manipulated by the government to benefit their overseas investments and exit plans, in case they can’t intimidate the population into bowing down to their authority. The value of the Dram is artificially inflated in relation to the Euro and Dollar, the dollar more so than the Euro. (It is controlled by the central bank which is run by one of the presidents close yes me.) This however, has not helped lower the price of imports and has hurt the local businesses. It hurts Armenian’s who get money sent to them from relatives living abroad, especially from the US. They get screwed on the exchange rate and the government benefits—they are buying cheap dollars, stealing the money and then investing it abroad.

    Things look better here but it is all on the surface. Those that are doing better are doing a bit better. Those that were good before are astronomically better. Those that were not doing so well (especially the older generations) are doing worse. And unless you want to submit to the corruption and near lawlessness of the ruling administration you will not get anywhere. I am not sure the demonstrations will make a difference but I firmly believe that things do need to change, the current regime is not good for the people of Armenian.

  2. Pingback: Armenia Election Monitor 2008 » Blog Archive » Armenia’s Dubious Election

  3. Nice article Douglas:

    Three of the critical factors in your assessment are ‘economic growth’, ‘construction’ and ‘karabakh’. The first is hailed by the World Bank and the IMF as having been driven mainly by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI); but that has simply been the illegal transfer of state assets (which belonged to the people of Armenia) to state connected cronies, who have represented themselves through overseas organizations. The second is the same corrupt state connected cronies laundering their ill-gotten gains, again at the expense of the people of Armenia. And the third, eventual resolution of Karabakh, is directly tied to the construction boom and to the present fight for the Presidential palace.

    You say the real-estate market is booming, and it is true that Yerevan is now home to recently built apartments sufficient to house tens of thousands. But although the construction has been going on since the turn of the century, latterly increasing in pace, but with notably reduced quality, the apartment buildings continue to stand empty. And according to the WB and the IMF, through the same period of time Armenia’s population has decreased by some 500,000, the main factor in the poverty reduction equation; the lesser-privileged having been forced to leave the Republic. So presumably Armenia needs less housing not more.

    The question is, why have the corrupt Armenian cronies pumped billions of dollars into these major construction projects, when there is apparently no sign of the punters ready to lay down the cash to become a part of the Armenian economic boom.

    The answer is tied to Karabakh, and if Sergic manages to keep his Presidential seat, then his cronies will soon be cashing in on their years of illicit investments and the catastrophic results will soon become very apparent.

    If you care to look at my ‘Blowing the World Bank Whistle’ blog (
    2008/02/world-bank-armenia-corruption-politics.html) you will find the reality of what has been going on in Armenia since the turn of the century, driven by the WB and the IMF, and how a very influential international group has been pressing for the past year to have it exposed.

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