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Democracy in Armenia 01/27/2003
Democracy in Armenia
by Edmond Azadian

The presidential election on February 19 is one more test to gauge Armenia's democratic credentials.

A recent State Department report on the progress of the democratization process has ranked Armenia among four former Soviet republics run by a democratic form of government, while Azerbaijan was slated as a "fake democracy".

Our State Department dispenses these democratic labels freely to many countries, yet Armenia may be subjected to a more exacting criterion.  While Turkey - ruled by a military junta to oppress 20 million Kurds - may be touted as a "democratic model" for the Moslem countries, and Israel may be labeled as "the only democracy in the Middle East", notwithstanding murder and oppression of 2 million Palestinians, Armenia's move towards democracy will be scrutinized more critically, because of its security ties with Russia and economic ties with Iran.

To illustrate the double standard used in making these judgments, it is suffice to mention that for the pundits at our State Department, who designed the democracy nomenclature, the Kurds on the Iraqi side of the border are freedom fighters, who deserve protection, while the same Kurds on the Turkish side of the border are marked as "terrorists", deserving to be destroyed by U.S. supplied weapons and taxpayers' money.

As the former Soviet republics emerge from the ruins of the defunct empire, each has been seeking its own course towards democracy, while they all face the same or similar problems in building their civil societies.

Whether we like it or not, these republics may only be compared with each other, and not with countries enjoying long democratic tradition.  It would be absurd to compare Armenia's fledgling democracy to any country in Europe or to the United States.  It can only be compared with its neighbors and when we do that, Armenia stands out as the most evolved democracy compared to Azerbaijan and Georgia.  In Azerbaijan, Aliev's repressive regime has muzzled the press and jailed the opposition leaders who may challenge his authority.  Further, adding insult to injury, Aliev held a referendum last August, for a constitutional change to be able to hand pick his successor, who, in this case, happens to be his own son, Ilham, who is being groomed in the succession line.  Therefore, Azerbaijan is on the course of some oil sheikdoms that treat their people and countries as hereditary dynastic properties.

Yet President Bush just extended the waiver on Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act for one more year, encouraging Azerbaijan to continue on its undemocratic course and to threaten its neighbors, while maintaining the illegal blockade of Armenia and Karabagh.

Georgia is another basket case, with its leadership confined to the capital, seeking salvation for its internal problems from faraway countries.  Ajaria, Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia each enjoy full autonomy with very little loyalty to the central government.  President Edvard Shevardnadze, who was very successful in destroying the Soviet empire, proved to be very clumsy when it came to building his own republic.

Journalists in Georgia are free to write anything they please, if they don't mind being abducted or assassinated.

Armenia, in turn, suffers from the ills endemic to the entire territory of the former Soviet Union.  But it has a remarkable rate of recovery with 12.7% improvement in its economy, a record for the entire region.  Yet that has to make a measurable dent on the level of poverty in the struggling country.

Corruption is inversely proportional to economic development.  The more wealth that is produced to be distributed to the populace, the less corruption will manifest.  And adversely, the less wealth that is available to be shared, the better the chances for corruption.

The press in Armenia is free to the point of exaggeration.  Anything and everything is permi ssible to publish, without fear of libel suits.  This measure of freedom has degenerated some organs of the press into yellow journalism, demoralizing the population and putting the authorities on the defense.

It is in the best interest of the present administration to hold elections as clean as possible, and as transparent as possible, because the West will hold Armenia to a higher standard of democratic process, while it may wink at Azerbaijan's transgressions.  Armenia needs the West to be able to continue its balanced foreign policy, based on the principles of "complementarism".

The opposition would have helped the political discourse tremendously had it been capable of rising above its primitive level.  At this time eleven contenders are challenging the incumbent president, without any platform or political agenda.  Candidate Stepan Demirchyan, who is banking on his late father's name and legacy, announced recently, in his electoral campaign in the Lori region:  "I am not promising and I shall not promise miracles".

That statement reflects clearly Armenia's situation.  Even Kocharian himself cannot promise miracles, nor dramatic improvements in Armenia's economy, because the determining factors are far beyond any ruler's capacity and they are imposed on each Republic in the region.

The opposition has been driving a negative campaign, seemingly having nothing tangible to offer.  When people are in dire need it is very easy and convenient to find scapegoats, and the opposition is doing just that, manipulating the popular sentiment and directing it against the President.  That tactic may be self-serving and self-fulfilling, but it only contributes to the atmosphere of general distrust and despair.

When Ter Petrossian was elected President, a journalist asked him if he could feed the starving population in six months.  Otherwise, the people could turn against him.  His answer was: "Anyone who can feed Armenia's population in six months is welcome to this seat", pointing to the Presidential chair.

Things may have improved significantly since that time, but any incumbent knows realistically what could be done and what couldn't be done.  Whereas the contenders may promise the pie in the sky, since they have nothing to lose.

The looming cloud over the October 27 parliament massacre will certainly remain a factor in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections.  The early conclusion of the trials would have helped the political atmosphere to clear up.  Unfortunately, that tragedy will remain as a liability for the present administration and it has already become a political capital for the opposition.  A few organs of the yellow press, from Yerevan to California, have already judged and indicted the president for that crime.

The assassination of Tigran Naghdalian, head of the public radio and TV in Armenia, was another blow that further aggravated the situation.  Although Naghdalian was one of the most articulate supporters of the Kocharian regime, the opposition has managed to devise a warped logic to insinuate the present administration's culpability in the killing.

The way the Presidential campaign is taking shape indicates there is more room left for the development of democracy in Armenia.  The discourse is not about the issues, but rather about personalities.  The fact that the current administration is more restrained in using the resources at its disposal has unleashed the opposition to carry its attacks and accusations to the limit of irresponsibility.

Polls indicate that the incumbent president is the front-runner in the campaign and stands a good chance of being elected in the first round.  But in Armenia there is always the element of surprise.  Any destabilizing event may jeopardize the entire process.  Some opposition candidates have carried their smear campaigns all the way to the Russian press in Moscow.  The only thing that t actic can do is damage Armenia's image as an emerging democracy and provide ammunition to its enemies to downgrade Armenia's standing in many areas.

It would have been a much healthier campaign had the opposition debated issues rather than the personalities, so that the present administration could come up with a clearer agenda and more coherent platform, rather than trying to capitalize on its past record.

There are countries, beyond the domestic opposition, vitally interested in destabilizing Armenia, and they may indirectly, or directly, enlist the support of the opposition forces to foster their agenda in the present campaign.

ADL in Armenia has emerged as a vibrant political force, with its 187 chapters around the country and 35 regional offices, with very limited resources.  Although strapped in resources, the ADL has the cleanest record in public perception because it has not been in any administration since independence and has carried the banner of democracy for more than a century.

The ADL in Armenia has lent its support to President Kocharian because it is for stability and continuity in the country.  Also, in the present state of political immaturity, Kocharian has demonstrated his proven abilities to conduct a balanced and prudent foreign policy and has delivered on his pledges in many domestic issues.

A very interesting political debate is shaping up in Armenia and it is every Armenian's wish and dream to see a strong democracy emerge as a safeguard to Armenia's future.

January 27, 2003
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