Armenia / Georgia
Armenia / Georgia


by Alexander Iskandaryan and Vicken Cheterian

For a long time to come, the Armenian public will associate the presidency of Robert Kocharian, the second president of independent Armenia, with the final act of his presidency: the violent police repression of opposition protests against alleged fraudulent elections.

On the first two days of March 2008, police forces and opposition supporters clashed in downtown Yerevan, causing ten fatalities and over a hundred injuries. Kocharian had planned a smooth handover of power to his longtime minister of defense and head of the ruling party Serge Sargsyan but, instead, the country went through massive political mobilization, street rallies, and eventually bloodshed, leaving Armenia with a damaged reputation, the people in a state of shock, and the society sharply polarized.

Yet, the legacy of Robert Kocharian, who headed the Armenian state for ten years, should be seen in a much broader sense. His political choices and personality will continue to cast a long shadow over the state institutions of Armenia for years to come, while rumors in Yerevan continue to talk about his eminent "comeback" to a leading post. His Curriculum Vitae is interwoven with contemporary political struggles of Armenia—and of Karabakh.

A native of Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, Kocharian became active in the struggle for unification with Armenia in 1988. In 1992, in one of the most difficult years of the Karabakh war, he was named head of the State Defense Committee of Nagorno-Karabakh, and led the war effort. Five years later, he was invited to Yerevan to become the prime minister of Armenia. In February 1998, Levon Ter-Petrossian was forced to resign after he advocated a compromise solution with Azerbaijan which was seen as capitulation by powerful politicians. The road was open for Kocharian to become president of Armenia.

Robert Kocharian tried to contrast his rule with that of his predecessor. During the campaign for the 2008 presidential elections, Kocharian accused his predecessor of being responsible for "ruining" the Armenian economy in the early years of independence. Armenia was "one of the most developed and industrialized republics of the Soviet Union. Within three to four years, Armenia became one of the poorest countries of the world," Kocharian said in a televised speech in October 2007. "Armenia's industry was destroyed in a matter of a few years. It can be said now that they inherited an essentially normal situation and bequeathed to me in 1998 a country with a ruined economy," he added.

In response, Ter-Petrossian repeated during his campaign speeches that Kocharian had set up a "gangster regime" rampant with corruption, and suffocating business people. The highly polarizing elections campaign and the clashes that followed have, by and large, divided Armenian public opinion and that of the Diaspora into two camps. In such a charged atmosphere, analytical voices have been marginalized.

From Days of Hope to State Collapse

The political context and exercise of power in the first years of Kocharian's presidency were dramatically different from his last years: he was one of several political heavyweights, and even as a president he was not the dominant personality in Yerevan. Kocharian had moved from Stepanakert to Yerevan only in 1997, and he still lacked a political base as well as a solid team in the Armenian capital. In 1998, Kocharian was both the president of Armenia and a political outsider.

The real power was in the hands of Vazgen Sarkissian, who, as a defense minister under Ter-Petrossian, had played a key role in the coup. Sarkissian, next to having large influence within the armed forces, had his own private army in the form of the Yerkrabah (homeland defenders) volunteers association, or former Armenian volunteers in the Karabakh war. Sarkissian revealed his political force—and ambitions—when he teamed up with Karen Demirchian—the Brezhnev-era ruler in Armenia—to create the Miasnutyun (Unity) Alliance.

In mid-1999, after a decade of hardship, war in Karabakh, economic decline, and internal political strife, Armenia looked ready to turn the page. There was a new wind in Yerevan, that of change—and hope. Against expectations that Kocharian would take s hardline approach to the Karabakh issue, he appealed to Baku to seek a negotiated solution.

In July 1999 the first face-to-face meeting took place between Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharian in Geneva. In internal politics, he promised freedom and transparency. Kocharian legalized the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), freed their political prisoners, and permitted its media to restart working. He also pledged free and fair elections—and, indeed, in the May 1999 parliamentary elections, the alliance between Vazgen Sarkissian and Karen Demirchian won 43% of the votes, and became the major power in the parliament. Sarkissian was nominated prime minister, and Demirchian was elected speaker of the parliament.

Although state institutions were far from being developed, at least there were strong and independent political leaders heading the executive and legislative branches. In time, one hoped the practice of negotiating concessions between those various political institutions would shape political pluralism, and would lead the way to Armenian democracy. The first Armenia-Diaspora conference, held on September 1999, promised to open a new era, and bring prosperity to the nation.

On October 27, 1999, five gunmen armed with Kalashnikov rifles rushed into the parliament building and opened fire, killing Speaker Karen Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian, and five deputies. The leadership of the nation was decapitated. Armenia was on the verge of collapse. The next day, the five armed terrorists surrendered, but this did not end the crisis. Soon, Kocharian came under heavy pressure and two of his close collaborators were arrested in connection with the parliament killings.

The army, the Republican Party, and the Yerkrapah members and allies of the slain prime minister were angry, asking for heads to roll, especially the resignation of Serge Sargsyan, who was the head of National Security at the time. For the next six months, Kocharian maneuvered his way to neutralize his opponents, by giving high position to one, and economic privileges to the other. By May 2000, Kocharian felt strong enough to fire all his rivals from key posts, and appoint his close collaborator Serge Sargsyan to the post of defense minister.

These two events—the parliament massacre and the capacity of Kocharian to maneuver and eliminate his rivals—led to the formation of the pyramid of power in Armenia, on top of which stood the president. All competing political forces were eliminated, marginalized, or co-opted, creating the conditions for a pyramidal political system.

Yet, although Kocharian was a strong ruler, he still lacked a popular base, which made him rely even more on authoritarian methods, muzzling of the media and manipulating elections. Although the five terrorists and two of their collaborators received life terms, the Armenian public is far from being convinced that justice was done. Rumors continue to be rife in every prominent killing, as in the case of JFK or, more recently, the death of Zurab Zhvania, the prime minister of Georgia. But even more so in a system where the judiciary is known to be subordinate to political directives.

What About the Economy?

Robert Kocharian insisted that under his rule the Armenian economy moved from ruins to rapid development. Since the year 2000, according to official statistics, the Armenian economy kept growing in double-digit leaps. The poverty line dropped from 55% of the population in 1998 to 26% in 2006.

Stability and economic growth were the two achievements often underlined by the Kocharian administration. "The two-digit economic growth rates in the last two years illustrate the success of reforms. We now have a dynamic, steadily developing economy," Kocharian said at a meeting with business people to sum up the year 2007.

Yet, the famous double-digit figures have been subject to much controversy. Kocharian's opponents say the figures are simply fake. "Who cares about reality? Our statistical department invents all its figures," says economist Eduard Agajanov. "Armenia has a legacy of a totally ruined economy and fake statistics. This is the real explanation behind the two-digit growth figures," adds Agajanov.

Such skepticism is reinforced by the findings of investigative journalist Edik Baghdasaryan, who discovered that according to official statistics, Armenia has been exporting bananas to Bahamas and Georgia in thousands of tons.

Critics do not dispute that Armenia witnessed economic growth in the ten years of Kocharian's rule, but argue that the result was to increase social polarization, instead of helping solve existing social problems. "Economic polarization is too high for the greater part of the population to benefit from the rapid economic growth.

Worse still, the growth, combined with polarization, serves to further enhance social inequality," writes Delovoy Express, a leading business weekly in Yerevan. "Just a few families are the country's main employers," says Hrant Bagratian, Armenia's 1993-1996 Prime Minister. "In the US, ten wealthiest families control 2.3% of the country's gross domestic product. In Armenia, they control 55%".

Many experts agree there is a middle class emerging in the country, although estimates of its size and basic parameters vary. The Armenian Sociological Association estimates it at 10-12% of the population; a study by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, at just over 15%. Many argue that these—often modest—developments were not the result of policies adopted by Robert Kocharian.

According to economic analyst Haroutiun Khachatrian from Noyan Tapan News and Analysis Center, "It is the economic reform implemented during the presidency of Levon Ter-Petrossian, Armenia's first president and 2008 presidential hopeful, that allowed the country to move from economic collapse to two-digit growth rates in less than ten years."

Yet, one should not over-estimate the recent economic development in Armenia. According to data given by Armenian banks, 15% of the GDP is dependent on foreign remittances, and if one includes remittances that take place outside the banking system, this figure could go up to 30% by some estimates. Another unsustainable element behind the recent economic boom has been the construction industry, which, in Armenia as well as abroad, had attracted speculative capital since the explosion of the Internet bubble.

The strengthening of the Armenian national currency, the dram, in the last four years, is the source of another controversy. Many criticize the Central Bank's deliberate policy, which serves short-term, import-oriented policies, and makes it difficult for Armenian industries to compete, due to the high price of their exports.

The sharpest criticism against Kocharyan's rule concerns corruption. It has flourished in the last ten years, at all levels and in all shapes and forms, from petty bribes to traffic police to smoke-filled rooms where the import and export monopolies are distributed between the country's largest economic players. "The economy is organized in a way to allow several powerful oligarchs to control everything," says opposition spokesman Levon Zurabian. "The oligarchs should be stripped of all their benefits and made to pay taxes like everybody else."

Under constant pressure to do something about the ubiquitous corruption, Kocharyan's government had not been very creative, and the results were not really impressive. At best, the administration just gave up on things and preferred to altogether withdraw itself from a particular sphere. After endless failed campaigns against bribery, in Kocharyan's last year, the traffic police almost entirely disappeared from the roads. Of course, this did not improve the irregular driving practices and only slightly raised the drivers' morals.

Just as with the economic growth, opinions vary as to how much of the responsibility lies with Kocharian. Back in the Soviet era, corruption had been the oil in the machinery of Armenian economy. Since any market activity was considered a crime in the USSR, Armenia's buzzing commercial life was happening undercover. Selling flowers or T-shirts was organized the way drug trafficking is organized in the West.

As a result, all economic activity was marked by total disregard for the law. In the late eighties, every office in which there was an income to be made was for sale in Armenia, from hospital nurse or piano teacher to village mayor. Twenty years later, it is not always obvious how much of the corruption is the doing of the new generation of unscrupulous officials and how much the result of insistent public demand, a habit for buying things that should not be up for sale.

Deterioration of Media Freedoms

When Kocharian came to power, the media in Armenia was witnessing a return to pluralism. This was due to two factors, the first being the legalization of the Dashnak press (which was banned under Ter-Petrossian by the end of 1994), while the second was the development of private local television companies, which broadcast a point of view different from that of the authorities.

The leading private television company was A1+, which broadcast in Yerevan, and brought an added value to the Armenian media scene: it had even broadcast a direct interview with Nairi Hunanian, the head of the terrorist group responsible for the parliament massacre in 1999, while they were still holding dozens of parliamentarians hostage.

The timid development of media pluralism in Armenia was a reflection of the political pluralism of the early years of the Kocharian rule. As the centralization of power advanced, so did the homogenization of the media sector. In a competitive bid, A1+ lost its broadcasting license to an entertainment project, out of technicalities. The entire sector of electronic media—radios and mainly televisions—came under the direct or indirect control of the authorities, leaving dissenting voices to a fragile print media.

In post-Soviet countries, the most influential and financially viable media are the television companies. Neither radio, nor the print media, even less so, plays any significant popular role. Radio often broadcasts entertainment programs and rarely news, while newspapers have marginal circulation: in the last ten years, the biggest Armenian daily has had a circulation of no more than five thousand copies.

Armenian authorities, similar to other post-Soviet "semi-democracies," tried to bring the television sector under control, leaving a small space in the print media for opposition voices. The authorities thought they would be able to control and manipulate public opinion like this, important for a political system that pretends to give the choice of election to its citizens but has no intention of ceding power as a result of eventual electoral defeat.

The problem with such a system is that constant propaganda undermines the public trust towards the media. As we have seen in consecutive elections, and especially during the presidential elections of 2008, propaganda for the administration, and "black public relations", that is negative coverage of the opposition, by the entire sector of the electronic media does not seem to yield the results hoped by the authorities: to guarantee regime stability in times of elections.

Stability or Stagnation?

Looking back at the ten years of Kocharian's rule, one can say that the results are, at the very least, mixed. In spite of the economic upturn, social polarization widened, as well as popular dissatisfaction. On the positive side, the security of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh was preserved, and negotiations were initiated with two Azerbaijani presidents, Heidar Aliyev, and later Ilham Aliyev. Armenia did not witness the kind of military adventures we have seen recently in neighboring Georgia.

Yet negotiations with Azerbaijan had two defects: they were limited to the two presidents and their foreign ministers, and Karabakh representatives were left out. Moreover, public opinion both in Armenia and Azerbaijan was kept out of the process, and was often suspicious towards it. In spite of decade-long negotiations, the long-term security and stability of Karabakh and therefore of Armenia is still to be achieved.

Following the catastrophe that befell Armenia after the massacre in the parliament, Kocharian succeeded in bringing stability to Armenia and prevented the country from sliding into an institutional vacuum or civil war. Yet, this stability came at a high price: the subjugation of all political institutions to the presidency.

As a result, the Armenian justice system, parliament, and broadcast media are not independent institutions instrumental in maintaining a check and balance on the executive branch, but rather are at the service of the presidency. The price of this subordination is very high, as the March 2008 events reveal: it is the weakness, and not the strength, of the Armenian state; it lacks instruments and institutions to mediate between the various sectors of the political elite and society, leaving violence in the streets as the remaining option to settle differences.

Here we come to what is likely to be Armenia's biggest challenge—the one Kocharian failed to meet: after a decade and a half of independence, the Armenian people do not feel that they are the owners of the state, citizens of the country; instead, they feel they are the subjects of a foreign power. This feeling of alienation from the state, which has been rooted in the public psyche after repetitive disillusionments, will be the most difficult legacy to overcome after the decade of Kocharian rule.

Originally published in the November 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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