A Eurovision story

Ex Caucasus semper aliquid novo:

Rovshan Nasirli, a young Eurovision fan living in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, says he was summoned this week to the country’s National Security Ministry — to explain why he had voted for Armenia during this year’s competition in May.

“They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.”

A total of 43 Azeris voted for the Armenian duo Inga and Anush, and their song, “Jan-Jan.”

Nasirli, like others, used his mobile phone to send a text message expressing his preference, little imagining his vote would eventually result in a summons from national security officials. (By contrast, 1,065 Armenians voted for the Azerbaijani team, apparently without consequence.)

— That’s actually a fairly good index of the relative freedoms of the two countries. Armenia is a managed democracy, where the opposition is kept pretty toothless. Last year, when the government got tired of peaceful protests over a stolen election, they gunned down a bunch of protesters in the street. (And then blamed the opposition, of course.) Continue reading

From Yerevan to Tehran?

Via The Monkey Cage, an interesting article on the lessons hardline regimes may have learned from the Orange Revolution. Here are his four lessons:

1) If you are going to fix the results of an election, give yourself a big margin of victory. Otherwise, a little electoral fraud can credibly be argued to have swung the outcome of the election (as was the case in the Serbian and Ukrainian presidential election)….

2) If you are really going to rig the results of elections, don’t mess around with pretenses of transparency that could end up leaving hard evidence of electoral fraud….

3) Don’t leave any doubt about the willingness of security forces to defend the regime. […]

4) Technology–especially social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but also more basic technology such as text messaging–is a friend of opposition forces attempting to combat electoral fraud, so do what you can to minimize its impact.

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And quiet falls the dram

It hasn’t attracted much attention, but little Armenia just gave up on supporting its currency, the dram, and allowed it to float free. The dram promptly fell by 20%, leading to price hikes and a brief wave of panic buying and hoarding.

This is sort of a non-story at an international level, because (1) Armenia is tiny, (2) so many Eastern European currencies have been dropping that another one comes as no surprise, and (3) unlike some other places, Armenia’s economy is not actually imploding. The currency adjustment was probably long overdue, and the subsequent panic is already slacking off. Armenia’s economic numbers show a recession, but a relatively mild one; to oversimplify, the relative backwardness and isolation of Armenia’s economy and financial system are serving to buffer it from the worst of the crisis.

From an Armenian perspective, of course, this is huge news. And more interesting than it looks; there’s a plausible case to be made that the Central Bank allowed the dram to stay overvalued for much too long in order for some well-connected local players to get very rich. The opposition is advancing this case as loudly as they can. Since the government dominates all the TV news and most of the radio, magazines and newspapers, that’s not very loudly. And this is the same government that gunned down a bunch of peaceful protesters just over a year ago. So, the odds of any political fallout from the devaluation are pretty long.

Still… offered as another data point.

Russia has BFFs too

Not many, but some.

One is Armenia. The Armenians are annoyed at the Georgians for their generally shoddy treatment of the Armenian minority in Georgia. More to the point, Armenians generally look down their magnificent noses at Georgians, considering them self-indulgent, emotional, shrill, slovenly, unreliable, and just generally second-rate. Georgians don’t love Armenians either — they consider them sly, stuck-up and grasping. There are no exactly equivalent Western European stereotypes, but if you think “dour Scots versus hand-waving Italians” you’ll get the general idea.
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In which forms are carefully observed

Via Unzipped — who is rapidly emerging as the go-to blog for stuff about the current situation here in Armenia — I see that four opposition Members of Parliament are being stripped of their immunity so that they can be prosecuted. For, you know, supporting that coup attempt. You know. The coup attempt.

There are all sorts of funky wrinkles to the situation. Like the border incident with Azerbaijan yesterday. The Azeris trying to probe for weakness at a time of crisis? Or the Armenian government trying to distract people with a foreign enemy? Who knows? — Or the luxury store downtown owned by a prominent local oligarch, friendly to the government, that was looted during the (brief) rioting. Attacked because he was a friend of the government? Or is it true that all his staff evacuated hours before, leaving the store a provocatively tempting target? And the crackdown: was it done by President Kocharian just to crush the opposition, or was it more of a poisoned gift to his successor-elect? Once you start thinking in terms of agents provocateurs and double motives, suddenly it’s all a hall of mirrors.

Anyway. Yerevan is about 95% back to normal. Some armed soldiers hanging around at major intersections, and that’s about it. Shops are open, streets are busy. Some newspapers have disappeared from the stands — the state of emergency has shut down opposition papers — but you have to look twice to spot it. I’d like to say there’s a strange underlying vibe but maybe I’m just not sensitive enough. Of course, if you talk to people individually… well, even people who supported the government are pretty rattled.

It’s hard to say where this is going, but I’m still inclined to bet “status quo”.

A quiet Sunday in Yerevan

Walked into central Yerevan today.

For those of you who haven’t been following this story: for the last two weeks, tens of thousands of Armenians have been turning out to protest the results of the recent Presidential election. The ruling party’s candidate supposedly won in a landslide, but there’s reason to think the elections were stolen. Yesterday morning, the government ran out of patience, declared a “state of emergency”, and sent a wave hundreds of police into the streets, followed by a second wave of soldiers. There are reliable reports of eight people dead and perhaps a hundred injured.

But that was yesterday. Last night Levon Ter-Petrosian, the losing presidential candidate, issued a statement asking his supporters to stand down. Today…
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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? Continue reading

Why you shouldn’t care about Nagorno-Karabakh (and why you might one day have to)

A while back I started a series on “frozen conflicts” in the former USSR. The first two (on Transnistria) can be found here and here. I was planning to do them in order from least bad to worst (which would put South Ossetia next) but decided to jump ahead a bit to Nagorno-Karabakh.

What the heck is Nagorno-Karabakh, anyway?

Briefly: it’s a small, mountainous territory in the Caucasus, about the size of a small US state or a large British county. Until the USSR collapsed, it was part of Azerbaijan. But the population was mostly Armenians. So there was a vicious little war in the early 1990s, which the rest of the world pretty much ignored.

The Azeris lost, so today Nagorno is almost entirely Armenian. It claims to be an independent country, but nobody recognizes it.
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Hrant Dink shot dead

Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist who won fame and notoriety for challenging Turkish nationalism, was shot dead in Istanbul yesterday.

If you’re not following events in Turkey closely, you might not have heard of Hrant Dink. Briefly: he was an ethnic Armenian but born and raised in Turkey. The genocide didn’t kill or expel all of Turkey’s Armenians, quite; there are still about 50,000 of them, mostly living in or around Istanbul. Dink was the editor of the Armenian community’s newspaper, Agos, and also its most prominent public intellectual.

Dink got into trouble with Turkish authorities for two things: he insisted on the reality of the Armenian Genocide, and he openly discussed the ambiguous position of ethnic and religious minorities in the Turkish state. Dink wrote about how, as a boy, he had to sing the Turkish national anthem every day in school: “I am a Turk, I am hard working and honest… happy is he who calls himself a Turk… great is our race.” It made him think, he wrote: who am I? If not a Turk, then what?

“As a child, I didn’t know what it meant to be Turkish or Armenian. At Armenian boarding school in Istanbul, I recited the Turkish credo every morning, but I was also told I should preserve my Armenian identity. I never came across my own name in school books – only Turkish names. As an adolescent, I heard the word ‘Armenian’ used as a swearword. As a Turkish citizen, I saw high-court decisions that referred to Armenians as ‘foreigners living in Turkey’. The Armenian orphanage that I worked so hard to establish was confiscated by the state.”

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