The Magazine

Tractors for Votes

Democracy in Armenia.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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Hovannisian knows this abyss as well as anyone. In 1991, he left a lucrative legal career in his hometown of Los Angeles to return to Armenia. Soon after raising the Armenian flag at the U.N. as the country’s first foreign minister, Hovannisian resigned in disgust at the machinations of Armenia’s first president and has spent the years since as a dissident in reverse exile. Last March he staked his life on the belief that democracy in name only has led to an independent Armenia in name only, holding a 15-day hunger strike on a public bench in freezing weather.

There’s plenty of evidence for that belief. The oligarchs who run Armenia owe their monopolies—on gas, on sugar and flour, on every basic resource—to tycoons around the Kremlin, to whom they have sold Armenia’s gold mines and power plants. And more. In August 2010, Russia signed a 24-year extension on control of a crucial military base in Armenia, funded and sustained entirely by the Armenian state. As for human resources, over the last
20 years, at increasing speed, up to
1.5 million citizens have fled the country, a number whose symbolism is not lost on those who remain.

 The exodus shows no sign of slowing. And none of this helps Armenia’s ability to handle its far wealthier Islamic foes. Given the retreating direction of political progress, it is not farfetched to think that the presidential election in February presents the last chance for an Armenian Spring.

Fighting for that spring will be a few hundred thousand citizens who continue to vote their convictions against every temptation of bribery and despair. Many of them are the same freedom fighters who spearheaded the democratic revolt within the Soviet Union in 1988. Their ancestors, in the brief window between genocide and communism, managed to establish a constitutional republic from 1918 to 1920 that even included women’s suffrage; it failed to survive largely because isolationists in the U.S. Senate rejected Woodrow Wilson’s Mandate for Armenia. Will the current republic finally become a home for that spirit, or a cemetery? The answer might depend on whether the West helps out for once in a serious way—or opts instead for a diplomacy that wins friends and influences no one.

Aiding Armenia now would not take much courage or controversy. Words could do the trick. Set on joining the EU and influenced by its diaspora, Armenia’s rulers are exceedingly sensitive to European and American pressure. The president’s Republican party is an “observing” member of the European People’s party. The leader of that coalition could shame the Armenian government into a few basic yet game-changing reforms— publicizing voter lists, for one.

Instead, the president of the European People’s party, Belgium’s
Wilfried Martens, praised the May 6 travesty as “mainly free and fair” and congratulated the victorious Republicans on an “excellent success.”

Alec Mouhibian is a writer in Los Angeles.

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