ARMENIAN POLITICS IN THE WAKE OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE “PROSPEROUS ARMENIA PARTY”
Dr. Mikayel Zolyan
17 March 2015
The effective destruction of Armenia’s second largest party, the Prosperous Armenia party, was probably the most important development’s in Armenia’s political landscape for quite some time. [i]
Even though it went largely went unnoticed by the outside world, this event, especially within the larger geopolitical context of Armenia’s turn towards the Eurasian integration project, may be watershed: it may become the beginning of an authoritarian turn in Armenia’s politics..
While few post-Soviet countries would qualify as democracies, not all of them are fully-fledged authoritarian regimes either. Throughout most of the post-Soviet period Armenia had been often described a “hybrid regime”, i.e. regime, which combines elements of democracy and authoritarianism.
More specifically, Armenian political system falls under the definition of “competitive authoritarianism,” a term suggested by the political
scientists Levitsky and Way to describe a regime, in which there is political competition, but the rules of the competition are tilted in a way, which favors the incumbent political force. To put it simple, in an authoritarian regime the elections are a formality, and everyone, including the opposition, knows that the opposition does not stand a chance. In a competitive authoritarianism, even though the elections are far from free and fair and the incumbent “plays dirty,, the opposition is “real” and it does stand a chance of winning, even in spite of the government’s foul play.
Until recently Armenia’s politics had been quite competitive, even though the incumbents tended to win in the end. It is true that since 1990 there has not been a single case of change of government through elections. However, Armenian opposition has been able to mount a significant challenge for the government. Thus, at presidential elections, cumulative votes of opposition candidates have almost never been lower than 40 percent. The incumbents had been able to win, but either in a run-off (1998, 2003), or, if it happened in the first round, with a slim margin (1996, 2008, 2012). In this respect Armenia has been strikingly different from its partners in the Eurasian Union, where the incumbents normally enjoy majorities of 60-70 percent or higher, and opposition leaders are either not to compete, or fail to gather a significant amount of votes. Moreover, massive post-election protests have repeatedly occurred, showing that Armenian opposition was a force to be reckoned with. And while these protests never led to opposition victory and often ended with violent government crackdowns (1996, 2004, 2008), these crackdowns never led to a complete eradication of political opposition. Moreover, restrictions on political freedoms which followed these crackdowns were short-lived and were usually lifted in the aftermath of the protests.
However, the government’s latest assault on the Prosperous Armenia Party may be a sign that things in Armenia are changing. Unlike the previous crackdowns, this one did not happen in a post-election situation and there were no major protests precluding it. The incumbent moved to eradicate a competing political force long before the next election. The way Tsarukyan’s political force was destroyed is very different from the previous cases of crackdown on opposition. While in previous cases the crackdown was aimed at preventing the opposition from taking power as a result of the elections, in this case Prosperous Armenia was targeted, as soon as it declared itself to be in opposition to the incumbent (in the past they have used a more ambiguous term, “the alternative,” and now it is easy to see why). In previous cases government crackdowns significantly weakened the opposition, but did not eradicate it from the political field.
However, the complete destruction of Prosperous Armenia as a political force showed the government’s determination to either annihilate or marginalize its competitors. This may be a sign that Armenia may be heading toward a system, in which the political power is monopolized by a single political force. [ii]
However, while the authoritarian trends are obvious, it is still difficult to predict how far they will go. It is true that Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union is a factor that could strengthen the authoritarian tendencies already present in the country. However, Armenia’s rulers can hardly afford to go as far as some leaders of other Post-Soviet states had done. Armenia does not have the energy resources that have allowed some of the post-Soviet rulers to consolidate their power. With its large diaspora, frozen conflict and weak economy Armenia is in too many ways dependent on the Western world to be able to cut its ties completely, which also means that Armenia will have to adhere to certain democratic standards, at least in form. And in addition to that, Armenia’s political culture, while hardly democratic, has been resistant to authoritarian tendencies throughout the post-Soviet period. As mentioned above, waves of protest activity have been a constant feature of Armenia’s political life. So, it would be extremely dangerous for Armenia’s rulers to assume that by removing Prosperous Armenia from the scene they have stabilized the regime.
In fact, by doing that they removed a valve, which had channeled the negative attitudes existing in the society in a way that was relatively safe for the political system. With the economy in tatters and social inequality as high as ever the absence of such a valve may prove very dangerous.
[i] For more on these events, see: RSC Staff analysis on Domestic Armenian Politics, 25 February 2015 by Haykak Arshamyan