by John Hughes
While the home team wilted 0-2 to arch-rival Turkey, the statesmanship image of Sargsyan was raised in the eyes of regional and international leaders looking for any sign of diplomatic progress in a neighborhood made more unstable by the recent spilling of bad blood between Georgia and Russia.
Side by side that September night in Yerevan sat Sargsyan and President Abdullah Gul of Turkey as the match was broadcast worldwide because of its significance as a World Cup qualifier. For the first time since independence, the Turkish head of state and his delegation were in the Armenian capital because Sargsyan had the initiative to extend the invitation.
Sargsyan's predecessor Robert Kocharian huffed that if he were still president, no Turkish leader would have been invited, no matter how significant the sports affair.
But Sargsyan's "soccer diplomacy" coup was praised by outsiders and hailed at home, with a comparison to Richard Nixon's breakthrough with the Chinese over a 1972 table tennis tournament—his famous "ping pong diplomacy."
The days immediately following Gul's visit crackled with media speculation over whether the two leaders had made any progress toward opening Turkey's longclosed border with Armenia—a matter that has necessarily included discussion of both the Karabakh issue and of Turkey admitting its culpability in the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
The Yerevan meeting also gave Gul a chance to advance his newly unveiled concept of a "security platform" that would bring Armenia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia around the same table for the sake of regional stability.
Further, Armenia's president implicitly endorsed an idea that Turkey should be included in Karabakh settlement talks. And when he was accused of being suddenly a bit too cozy with the adversary, Sargsyan turned to semantics to clarify that turning to Gul for "assistance" was not the same as "mediation."
There was no kissing on the first date for the leaders of the estranged countries, but the opening of dialogue offers a sense that both sides are ready to move forward and seek a new chapter of understanding after years of no relations and closed borders. The Gul visit also affirmed that both sides now have found a new sense of political will seemingly sufficient to move forward and redefine the nature of their rancorous relationship.
As if the two nations were for the first time using a common language, talks swirled over the potential for new energy and communications (railway) exchanges
between Armenia and Turkey.
The early autumn produced an unexpected crack in the diplomatic iceberg between the two nations—the need of which was underpinned by events of the late summer in Georgia.
Georgia may have provided an impetus for opening talks between Turkey and Armenia, by doing nothing more than instigating the destruction of its own wellbeing by Russia.
As Armenia's neighbor to the northwest deepened the divide between itself and Russia, the severing of communications revealed Georgia's regional necessity as a conduit of trade. The impact of war also emphasized the crucial reality that no Caucasian country can stand on its own and that instability here leads to at least inconvenience for even self-sustained neighbors (i.e. Turkey, Russia).
The state of bilateral relations, or more precisely the lack of relations, seems to have now assumed a new sense of urgency as events in Georgia have only speeded up the process of moving toward the opening of the long-closed border between Turkey and Armenia and for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Improved relations between Turkey and Armenia also serve Russian interests for at least two reasons:
First, because of Russia's control and ownership of the Armenian energy, telecommunications and railway sectors, there is now a lucrative opportunity for Moscow to leverage its position in Armenia and use Armenia as a platform to sell electricity to eastern Turkey, were the border to be opened, and to penetrate the Turkish market through their dominant position in Armenia. In this way, a breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian relations also offers a gain for Russia.
Secondly, the possible opening of the Armenian-Turkish border would help the overall Russian strategy of further isolating and marginalizing Georgia—an initiative Russia appears intent upon, as seen by its recognition of sovereignty for the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and Ossetia.
The Georgian conflict has also pitted Russia against the United States in what may not be a cold war but has surely chilled any strategic partnership. In this regard, there would be a significant geopolitical gain for Moscow, should Russia achieve (through its self-interested support) an Armenia-Turkey breakthrough that the United States has failed to realize. Such a gain for Moscow was readily apparent as early as the Armenian president's invitation to his Turkish counterpart, which he made from Moscow during a state visit, and which represented a Russian-backed initiative that had formerly been a long-present U.S. foreign policy priority.
A Chance to Be Presidential
Renewed attention on Armenia in the wake of the outbreak of war in Georgia provided an important and helpful new opportunity for the Armenian president to capitalize on his image-making that had groomed him well before even his official announcement of his presidential candidacy. At a reported $60,000 per month, Sargsyan—while still Prime Minister—had hired the U.S. public relations firm of Burston-Marsteller (founded by former Hillary Clinton consultant Mark Penn) to enhance his profile in Europe and the West. The powerful public relations company had earlier represented many prominent yet controversial figures, including former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto.
The president appeared ready, then, to take the spotlight when the stage was prepared for him.
In September he addressed the United Nations.
And then he brought the message home, with what in effect was a first for Armenian presidents as Sargsyan appeared before the National Assembly and television for a "State of the Nation" address.
"A war in our neighborhood, closed borders, problems of external communication, regional relations getting complicated, a clash of superpowers' interests—this is the circle of today's reality for Armenia," President Sargsyan told his people.
"Today, it is more than obvious that we need not only to make a clear, pragmatic, nonemotional and adequate evaluation of the situation, but also to take consistent steps pursuing far-ranging goals. What is required is the country's stability, the consolidation of forces and possibilities. The (Karabakh) war has not ended as long as there is an arms race; it has not ended because we all together haven't yet congratulated the presidents of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh for their will-based decision and for the peaceful settlement of the conflict."
A local 31-year-old professional linguist, who has been a staunch Sargsyan detractor, watched the president's address and conceded: "Before, when he would make public speeches, he was hardly understandable. Now, at least when he speaks, he makes it sound as if he's doing the right things."
Late October brought the arrival to Yerevan of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev for a two-day official visit. And whether as a product of courtesy or diplomacy on the part of the Russians, it came within weeks after US Vice President Dick Cheney had flown over Yerevan from Tbilisi to Baku, seeing no apparent need or wish to include a "grip and grin" photo op with Sargsyan in his itinerary.
Was the visit by Russia's No. 1 an embrace? Was the flyover by America's No. 2 a cold shoulder?
Leave it to the analysts and the future to decide. But as November arrived, so had yet more movement between regional foes, called to meet Medvedev for a "Moscow Summit."
In what could be taken as Russia's increasing mediatory role in the South Caucasus, for the first time in nearly a decade and a half, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan (Ilham Aliev) followed Medvedev's lead and, on November 2, put signatures to a joint document that lays out a vision for a future settlement of the longrunning conflict between the two ex-Soviet states.
The presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed a joint five-point declaration in which they called for further efforts in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by way of a direct dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia with the mediation of Russia, the United States and France as the cochairmen of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In the joint declaration that was presented to the media after the meeting, the signatories, in particular, stressed that the settlement should be based on the principles proposed by the Minsk Group in Madrid in November 2007.
The sides stated that they will "promote an improvement of the situation in the South Caucasus through establishing stability and security in the region by means of finding a political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on principles and norms of international law and decisions and documents adopted within this framework, which will create favorable conditions for economic development and versatile cooperation in the region." They also agreed that "the achievement of a peaceful settlement should be accompanied with legally binding international guarantees of all its aspects and stages."
While President Sargsyan might have enjoyed the reflected glory of diplomacy breakthrough necessitated by conditions beyond his control or influence, inherited domestic instability lingers.
While he scored points with Turkey when his national soccer team couldn't, and won reserved praise here and there, President Sargsyan's administration has so far hardly managed to impress international bodies whose task is to measure democratic progress in transitional countries.
As local government elections took place across Armenia in September and October, it appeared as if the obvious fraud of February's presidential election only encouraged vote-rigging and hooliganism at the lower levels. Polling stations reported the same varieties of violations as in the national campaigns, only on a slightly smaller and less visible scale.
Political analyst and former member of the National Assembly Hmayak Hovhannisian responded sarcastically that, following the deadly results of last February-March, Armenia has reached a new standard for whether elections are handled successfully: "Maybe we need to be glad (local) elections passed without casualties." In other words: At least nobody died.
And, while the new president has been congratulated and encouraged for his tough talk and action on cleaning up dirty deeds within Armenia's Customs House and in higher education, the leading monitor on government corruption gives Armenia failing marks.
Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index ranked Armenia 109 among the 180 countries of the world with a 2.9 grade, which is 0.1 points lower than last year, meaning Armenia has become only more corrupt.
Although the drop seems minor, Professor Johann Graf Lambsdorff of the University of Passau, Germany, who studied the conclusions, said: "Improvement of just one point in the index results in 0.5 percent growth in the GDP and 4 percent growth in income in a country."
Another index drafted by an organization called Global Integrity also points to the level of efficiency of the government's anti-corruption program. The survey by the organization showed legislation in Armenia is quite good, as it received 82 points. However, law enforcement scored only 34, indicating a core problem.
"This signals a serious institutional problem," says Varuzhan Hoktanian, the deputy chair of Transparency International. "Laws are passed, but they remain on paper. The difference between the points given to the laws and their implementation is 48, which the same survey says is a huge gap."
The gap between law and enforcement of law puts Armenia on the same level as Kenya and Uganda.
Recently Ishkhan Zakarian, the chairman of the Oversight Chamber of Armenia, presented the results of investigations into three spheres—the urban planning and agriculture ministries, as well as a heating program financed by the World Bank, for the first quarter of this year.
The check-ups have shown the state has suffered damages of about $4 million due to abuses.
"Those have mainly been cases of payments for work not done, which is a very serious abuse and the sums should be returned to the budget. This is severe damage caused to the state budget, and so criminal cases will be pursued in this regard," said Zakarian.
His report found about $940,000 of general financial abuses in programs implemented by the ministry of agriculture, with about $460,000 taking the form of direct abuses through excessive allocations.
Additionally, monitoring of the Ministry of Urban Planning revealed about $1 million in fraud against the state.
Anahit Bakhshian, chairwoman of the Heritage Party council, says the disclosures are important, but they don't necessarily mean people really responsible for them will be punished.
"Lower-level officials, who are just stooges, may once again become targets," says Bakhshian, adding it is still unclear whether authorities "really want a clean-up to get rid of officials who devastate the country and 'squeeze' the budget, or it is just a power play and money shuffling going on."
Armenia dropped, too, in the eyes of a major body monitoring media freedom.
In mid-October, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders released its annual report and rankings of press freedom in 173 countries. Armenia was in 102nd place—in contrast to the 77th position it enjoyed only a year earlier.
The current year in Armenia has also been marred by a new wave of violence against journalists—and not only related to the post-election incidents of March 1. According to local organizations, the peak of violence was in August when five representatives of media not controlled by the government were targeted in attacks.
The unrest and violence that followed Serge Sargsyan's rise to power, and his administration's failure to satisfactorily account for itself in the aftermath of the March post-election crisis, has placed Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe.
Specifically, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has threatened to strip Armenia of its voting rights in the Assembly unless the body is satisfied that the 129 people still in jail as a result of the post-election crisis are being held for lawful reasons. Initially, PACE had given Armenia until June to account for the mass arrests of anti-government sympathizers and activists before imposing sanctions. It extended its deadline until January 2009, but by this past September, it was becoming clear that PACE had grown impatient with the Sargsyan administration's sluggish response.
A follow-up PACE report concluded: "Serious questions persist as to the very nature of the criminal charges brought against the persons apprehended in connection with the events of 1-2 March . . . The prosecution's cases against 19 persons were based solely on police testimony." The Assembly body was also concerned that "the resort to fast trial proceedings in a number of cases—some of which had lasted less than 30 minutes— gave rise to questions. To date, no law enforcement officials have been charged in connection with the 1 March events."
"It should be clear that the detention of people in relation to [the March 1] events, other than those who committed grave crimes, is unacceptable to the Assembly," said Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights.
Questions over President Sargsyan's legitimacy influence opinion on even the clearly progressive steps he has taken to date to lead Armenia toward a more democratic model of governing.
Russia has self-serving reasons to embrace and support Sargsyan. And even Turkey now has to consider Armenia a factor for its (Turkey's) welfare in the region.
Meanwhile, the United States has still not congratulated Sargsyan on becoming president, even after two obvious opportunities. Not even a simple message of congratulations was offered in September when Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian met Vice President Cheney in Washington, D.C., or when the State Department congratulated "the Armenian people" on Armenia's Independence Day.
Hardly consequential in global politics for much of its existence, Armenia is now a supporting actor in a drama of major consequence for friend and foe alike—drawn to the stage by Georgia's outburst of illconceived audacity.
And when the latest Caucasian conflict flared in Georgia, Armenians were among those who suffered.
About 20 Armenian families live in Kisnis, Georgia, one of the villages subjected to shelling when Russia responded to Georgian aggression (depending on which account of who struck first is believed).
"Georgians came to the village and told us to run, Russians were coming," Louisa Nersisian told ArmeniaNow senior reporter Vahan Ishkanyan, part of a team sent to the region by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Shells fell near the Nersisian home, breaking window panes. Ossetians burned several houses in the village. Although the assailants did not touch Armenians, nevertheless, they were scared to stay, as not all the aggressors asked if they were Armenians or Georgians.
Nersisian, who left the village with her son, two daughters-in-law and grandchildren, went to Tbilisi but later moved to a refugee camp. Her son, who serves in the Georgian army, was caught in a Russian siege, but managed to escape.
Gyulnara Marabian, 46, heads the only Armenian family in the South Ossetia village of Tidznis. The family fled on August 11: "We escaped by car," Marabian says. "My son and his child had left earlier. A Russian airplane hit, burning the houses. But ours wasn't damaged; the school is ruined."
Bombs falling in nearby Georgia and a sort of semidétente emerging with Turkey came in a truly significant year of independent Armenian history.
Twenty years ago this December, natural disaster put Armenia on the map, against the wishes of the USSR, which downplayed Armenia's greatest modern disaster until news emerged to the rest of the world. Before the onset of email, before text messaging, and nine years before Armenia got cell phone service, gravestones were headlines of the same news: "Mass Death in Leninakan."
The deaths of about 25,000 in the Shirak and Lori provinces came on December 7, 1988. In coming years, thousands more would die in Karabakh's struggle for
Twenty years later, Leninakan (now Gyumri) finally shows evidence of considerable recovery. Karabakh, too—and especially its capital, Stepanakert—is hardly the open wound of war that it was in the years immediately following the awful conflict.
And in Armenia proper, even towns outside Yerevan are feeling the effects of progress. Growth has come to Kapan, to Vanadzor, to villages such as Jiliza, despite whatever internal political climate or regional unrest might threaten to impede it.
There is reason to distrust the intentions of regional powers and the questionable inclinations of domestic self-interested politicians. There is also, however, reason to believe in a soon-approaching future Armenia that could emerge from the ill effects of both.