Amid all the uncertainties and difficulties facing Armenia, it appears to have the prospect of one certainty – that in February its current president, Serzh Sargsyan, will be elected to a second five-year term.
Whether that is a good thing depends on where you stand. But currently Armenian politics is playing out in such a way that president Sargsyan will have no serious rival on February 18 2103 when Armenians will be asked to go to the polls.
This much is clear after January 8 saw yet another two presidential candidates drop out of the race, effectively signalling what they saw as the futility of continuing, a decision taken even ahead of the official start of campaigning in Armenia’s presidential elections on January 21.
For Armenia and those closely observing it – notably, the European Union – the conduct of the elections will be crucial, especially given some of the criticisms that followed the May 2012 parliamentary elections, which however went off better than the controversial March 2008 presidential elections. According to the results of the May 2012 elections, Sargsyan’s Republican Party got 44 per cent, but none of the four major opposition parties were prepared to recognise the legitimacy of the result.
The EU’s interest was spelt out on January 9 when European Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle held talks with the president of the Armenian national assembly, Hovik Abrahamyan.
“Successful – free and fair – elections really matter and are crucial for EU-Armenia relations; without them the continuous reform which we want to see could be undermined. Before the elections next month, further progress is needed in the implementation of the current legislative framework, as recommended by the OSCE/ODIHR, while in parallel the longer-term process of updating electoral legislation for polls in the future should also continue.” Füle said after the meeting, according to a statement by his office.
Füle, according to the statement, commended the recent developments in EU-Armenia relations, notably the good progress on the Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement and the signature of last December’s Visa Facilitation Agreement.
He expressed hope that a good track record of its implementation will allow the journey towards visa liberalisation to be taken to a next level. He also expressed his appreciation for the unilateral lifting of visa requirements by Armenia for EU citizens, the statement said.
Füle welcomed progress in the negotiations on an Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.
“This Agreement is of the utmost importance in moving the EU-Armenia relationship to a higher level. It goes far beyond a normal free trade agreement. Through the Agreement the EU will open up portions of its acquis related to the internal market. But beyond this it encompasses changes that affect citizens in their daily lives in areas like consumer protection, air quality and road safety, offering a protective umbrella of high democratic standards and real guarantees for their rights,” the statement said.
The EU also has sent firm messages on regional issues surrounding Armenia.
“Broader regional cooperation was also raised, with an emphasis on the fact that good neighbourly relations are of strategic importance for Armenia, in particular as regards Russia,” Füle’s statement said. “It is in the EU’s interest to see good Armenian-Russian relations; they can in turn benefit also from Armenia’s partnership with the EU.”
Issues concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process were discussed, including the issue of possible flights to the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. Füle reiterated EU’s continued support for the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and their efforts in facilitating a peaceful settlement. He also emphasised the need for the sides to seek a diplomatic solution to issues relating to this airport and to avoid any actions that could fuel tensions in the region. co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, has been mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks between the two rivals after the 1994 ceasefire that followed six years of fighting that cost thousands of lives.
A firm message to the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, Armenia and Azerbaijan, was delivered in December when three EU foreign ministers – Bulgaria’s Nikolai Mladenov, Sweden’s Carl Bildt and Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski – toured the south Caucasus.
“On behalf of Europe, we today made a strong and clear call to the parties to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh to not allow further actions that could aggravate the situation and to take prompt steps to reduce tensions,” Mladenov said at the time.
“We are concerned by the constant escalation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, especially in recent months,” Mladenov said. From here on, he said, it was important for Armenia and Azerbaijan to stick to speech and actions that would prevent further escalation.
Meanwhile, at the meeting with Mladenov, Bildt and Sikorski, Armenian foreign minister Eduard Nalbandian expressed concern about the situation in Syria, which has had a direct impact on Armenia. About 8000 refugees from Syria have taken refuge in Armenia because of events in their country. A total of 70 000 Armenian Christians from Syria have left the conflict zone, which is why Armenia has a direct interest in a rapid end to the violence, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister said.
In a report late in December 2012, the Voice of America quoted Armenian prime minister Tigran Sargsyan as saying that many of the Syrians in Armenia were losing hope of ever going back.
The refugees, forced out by the relentless violence by the Assad regime in Syria, represent a serious burden for Armenia.
The Voice of America reported quoted the International Monetary Fund’s most recent outlook – October 2012 – as putting Armenia’s unemployment rate at 19 per cent, with the IMF forecasting that the jobless rate in Armenia will remain above 17 per cent at least to the end of 2017. And even with the economy slowly gaining steam following a dramatic drop during the financial crisis, the World Bank says poverty remains a problem.
The dramas in Armenia in 2012 ran the bounds of the country’s serious challenges, including June clashes at the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. At least eight soldiers died and several people on both sides were wounded in exchanges of fire.
While the outcome of Armenia’s presidential election in February 2013 appears a virtual certainty, the official campaign will be an opportunity for president Sargsyan to spell out further how he sees the country going forward.
Already, in a recent speech, outlining what he saw as his achievements in his first term, he spoke of the next five years seeing Armenia as a secure military power, as economically prosperous, governed by the rule of law and eradicating corruption.
What observers in various geopolitical directions – given the direct interest held in Armenia especially by its neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan, but also by Russia and the EU – will be awaiting will be his messages on issues such as the Armenian genocide, Nagorno-Karabakh and overall relations with Turkey and with the EU.
(Serzh Sarqsyan, president of Armenia. Photo: European Union)