Armenia's Western Evolution

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The atmosphere in this frigid city is not as dynamic as in Baku or as vibrant as in Tbilisi, but talk around Republic Square is filled with unguarded enthusiasm theses days. On Feb. 19, Armenians go to the polls to elect a new president to succeed Robert Kocharyan, the Nagorno-Karabakh war hero and former de facto president of the self-proclaimed republic. The main contenders for the presidency are Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Young, pro-Western Artur Baghdasaryan, the former speaker of the national assembly, is also mounting a long-shot bid for the highest office.

While election issues in Armenia focus on corruption, job creation and development beyond the capital, outside observers tend to speculate most on how the election will affect Armenia's stance in negotiations on resolving the 15-year standoff with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. A high-level European delegation, lead by Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, visited both capitals last week in an attempt to gauge attitudes toward conflict resolution. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev took the opportunity to indicate that his country was willing to use its expanding military to "wage war" to secure the return of the territory.

Ter-Petrosyan's plausible bid is interesting given that he had been forced out of office in 1998 by his own ministers, led by Kocharyan, who accused Ter-Petrosyan of being overly generous in Karabakh negotiations. Ten years later, the participants of the Minsk Group, which facilitates talks on the conflict, have adopted most of Ter-Petrosyan's ideas, and all that remains to be resolved -- at least on paper -- is an agreement on a referendum in the territory. Given both his history and election rhetoric, Ter-Petrosyan can be expected to work harder than Sargsyan to head off renewed open conflict with Baku and achieve eventual resolution. Not surprisingly, Sargsyan has questioned his patriotism.

But, despite its declared foreign policy strategy of "complementarity," the Kocharyan-Sargsyan government, headed by veterans of the Karabakh war, depends on Russian aid and diplomatic support to maintain the cease-fire line. Under their watch, much of Armenia's key infrastructure and enterprises have been bought by Kremlin-controlled firms. The country hosts more than 5,000 Russian troops, with additional forces and equipment transferred to Armenia when bases in Georgia were closed last year. Russian officials have spoken of allowing Sargsyan the presidency as a gift in exchange for further control of Armenian infrastructure.

Parallel to the electioneering and talk of war, however, Armenia is experiencing a slow but steady move toward better governance, distancing itself from the Russian model. The great debate of this election cycle, spurred on by public discontent and Western nongovernmental organizations, was about equal access to the media by presidential candidates. The contentious election is happening only because Kocharyan chose to honor the constitution and step down after two terms, which was not a foregone conclusion. And several polls have shown the increased popularity of Western institutions such as the EU and NATO as well as less tolerance for corruption and "politics as usual."

That said, Sargsyan has blatantly used government institutions and capabilities for campaigning purposes. More than a thousand Sargsyan campaign offices have been opened across the country, mainly by local officials, and government buildings display his election posters -- a violation of Armenian election law. When they applied to display their own posters in some municipalities, Ter-Petrosyan and Baghdasaryan were told that all advertising space had already been purchased by the ruling party.

But as political analyst Richard Giragosyan says, Armenia's road to Western-style representative government -- unlike Georgia's -- is "an evolution, not a revolution." At least through U.S. and European eyes, an election victory for Ter-Petrosyan would seem a positive evolutionary step. While his presidency would certainly bring Armenia a "back-to-the-future" moment and while Baghdasaryan would likely be more of a reformer, success by a candidate not ordained by the ruling party would lend legitimacy to Armenia's democratic development. And the progress he might bring to Karabakh talks is seen in the United States and Europe as key to the country's potential Western course -- even as it quietly courts NATO and works within the European Neighborhood Policy.

While political discontent and interest in the West is rising among ordinary Armenians, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and a comfortably established leadership make it unlikely that Yerevan's Republic Square will be the next sight of a color revolution. But next week's truly contested election between Sargsyan and Ter-Petrosyan holds potential for continued change -- perhaps in a Western direction. Geopolitical circumstances mean that Armenians will have to move in that direction on their own. But self-motivation and evolution may very well be the ingredients for sustainable good governance and Western integration.

Alexandros Petersen is adjunct fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.