New 'Bully' May Help Move Yerevan Forward
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Slogans say a lot about the recent presidential election campaign in Armenia. Former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan campaigned under the banner "We're going to win." Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan won the nine-candidate race in the first round with the slogan "Onward Armenia." Armenia's Central Election Commission reported 69 percent voter turnout, led by Sargsyan with 52.9 percent and Ter-Petrosyan with 21.5 percent.
Nevertheless, in line with its slogan, the Ter-Petrosyan camp claimed victory and challenged the results at campaign rallies, even after the international observers announced that elections were "in line with the country's international commitments," "broadly fair" and "significantly better than earlier presidential elections." This could be read as an ironic allusion to Ter-Petrosyan's rigged reelection in 1996, which resulted in his ousting a year later.
The often complacent and greedy regimes since 1991 have left many disillusioned. The most disaffected were looking for a bully to bully the bullies who bullied them. They found a "champion" in Ter-Petrosyan, whose regime in the early 1990s racked up a record of human rights abuses, kleptocracy and election-rigging. But the post-electoral protest is unlikely to produce a major domestic crisis or a revolutionary change.
The silent majority does not see change for change's sake as particularly beneficial unless it means real change. Rarely does the electorate anywhere dump the leadership after a decade of peace and economic growth. People understand that a change of regime is messy, especially in a small country. Given the interlocking elites, change may be more cosmetic than real.
Still, for the big geopolitical issues the choice is real. Relations with Turkey and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seem ripe for a breakthrough. The candidate of peace seems more likely to be Sargsyan than Ter-Petrosyan. While uncertainties over regional configuration are likely to continue, it is safe to predict that the Sargsyan team will be seeking even closer ties with Russia and its president-elect.
For all the negativism, the elections may still have some positive effect. The Sargsyan team has been visibly chastened and the electorate somewhat awakened.
Whether the Sargsyan team has what it takes get beyond the legacy of corruption and unresponsive bureaucracy that he will inherit from the administrations of former Presidents Ter-Petrosyan and Robert Kocharyan, remains to be seen.
Arthur Martirosyan is program manager, FSU and Middle East, for Mercy Corps Conflict Management Group. Tom Samuelian is president of Arlex International in Yerevan, Armenia.