Every election in Armenia for the last 21 years has been praised by the West as a step in Armenia’s democratic progress. That this tiny Christian nation has held elections at all strikes the outside world as worthy of applause. After centuries of Ottoman oppression, culminating in a genocide that wiped out two-thirds (1.5 million) of its people and robbed the rest of their homes, followed by 70 years of Soviet rule, the emergence in 1991 of an independent state with the name “Republic of Armenia” was something of a miracle. The smallest post-Soviet republic is landlocked and largely mosque-locked: Armenia enjoys Turkey, Iran, Georgia, and Azerbaijan around its borders. The latter threatens war at any moment to reoccupy the ancient Armenian territory of Mountainous Karabakh—the Stalin-carved region Armenians fought to liberate in 1993—and spends millions hosting diplomats and journalists to inform them of the evil “Armenian enemies” who control the world’s media and banks.
Corruption seems like small potatoes in a climate like this. Which is one reason so few in the outside world have bothered to notice how Armenia’s political culture is reversing the triumph of its independence, guiding the nation steadily deeper into the lap of Grandmother Russia.
On May 6, Armenia elected its fifth National Assembly. Of the 131 seats in parliament—90 decided by party percentage, the rest by individual regional races—an absolute majority of 69 were won by President Serzh Sargsyan’s ruling Republican party, whose real popularity can be gleaned from its marvelous campaign slogan: “Believe in us, so we change.” Another 37 seats were taken by the Prosperous Armenia party, led by oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, a former arm-wrestling champion who campaigned with a gun in his hip pocket and whose arms look like a pair of overfed farm boys. Just 17 seats were split by three other opposition forces. Each barely—and conveniently, to quell unified protests—passed the minimum threshold to enter parliament.
American ambassador John Heffern and EU leaders gave the election a thumbs-up. Considering the fairer media coverage and less blood this time around, it might have been justified. Only one independent candidate withdrew from the race, after being beaten nearly to death by the thugs of an oligarch who opposed him on the Republican ticket. In terms of actual voting, however, the truth was hinted at by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s report of “widespread interference” in the process. That was the notoriously namby-pamby OSCE’s way of describing the most fraudulent and publicly dispiriting election in the country’s history.
Since Armenia’s last parliamentary election in 2007, roughly 300,000 people have left the country. Yet voter turnout this year somehow increased by 200,000. Armenian citizens are not allowed to vote from outside the country. But their names and passport information—plus those of many corpses—are in the possession of the police and appeared Election Day on freshly printed passports that droves of government hands, some clearly under 18, took from precinct to precinct. Passports were stamped with vanishing ink that further enabled multiple voting. Thus did the president’s party manage to forge at least half a million of the 1.5 million total votes counted, while refusing to publicize the eligible voter list against which the ballots could be verified.
Fraud wasn’t the only electoral problem. Every public institution is controlled by the ruling party. Every public employee—in schools, hospitals, the army—is scared into voting accordingly, at threat of their jobs. Some even stand as candidates against their will. I know of two distinguished members of the Republican parliamentary ticket who secretly voted for the opposition. And of those neither impersonated nor pressured at the polls, a disheartening percentage were bought. Bribes were distributed en masse throughout the monthlong campaign season by ruling-coalition parties, through their offices and the charities their leaders control.
“You’re not giving money?” I was asked, by people young and old, while on the campaign trail with the opposition Heritage party. Mostly the bribes took the form of 5,000 or 10,000 dram notes ($12 and $24). The arm-wrestler’s party—blatantly enough to be noticed by the OSCE—also distributed tractors.
Some conscientious objectors ripped up the cash they were given and stuffed it into their ballot envelopes. But they were too few, and their votes were disqualified. With its record numbers of vote-rigging and vote-buying, May 6 “delivered a nationwide abyss deeper and more ominous than ever before,” in the words of opposition leader Raffi K. Hovannisian, whose Heritage party retained its minimal presence in parliament, and who will likely contest the presidency in February 2013.
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.