Armenia: Turbulent 2016

Mikhail Belyaev, exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza
Armenia: Turbulent 2016

Past year was very difficult, stressful and full of tragic events for the entire world. With bloody battles in Syria and Iraq, a wave of terrorist attacks in Europe and Turkey, resonant assasination of Russian Ambassador in Ankara and the collapse of Russian Tu-154 plane, which headed to Syria, political developments in the South Caucasus are now in the background. 

Meanwhile, back in April of this year two countries of this turbulent region, Armenia and Azerbaijan, appeared on the headlines of leading media. After all, as it usually happens, politicians, experts and journalists of major powers remember about particular region only after something "explodes" in it. The same happened with Afghanistan before Iraq. The same happened with Iraq before the Arab Spring. The same happened with Ukraine before the war in Syria reached its peak. 

In April of 2016 something exploded in Karabakh. Fortunately for Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples, as well as for Russia, a fire that broke out was quickly extinguished - Moscow has once again demonstrated that it is the only player that has the opportunity to influence both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Heads of General Staffs Armenia and Azerbaijan discussed the conditions of cease-fire in the Russian capital. Four-day clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis resulted in hundreds of casualties on both sides. As a result, Azerbaijan seized several strategic heights and, according to various estimates, from 8 (Armenian data) to 20 (Azerbaijani data) square kilometers of land. "Ohanyan Line" was broken by Azerbaijanis, and was Ohanyan himself was fired after that. 

There was hope that after April, international community will try to find resolution of the conflict more actively, but the peace process has not moved at all since then. During the council of OSCE Foreign Ministers in Hamburg mediators could not even agree on a meeting between Foreign Ministers Mammadyarov and Nalbandian. Perhaps world powers' priorities are just different: Number of people are dying in clashes and under bombs in Syria and Iraq every day is the same as in the course of four-day clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In addition, there is a huge geopolitical fight there, while so far West left the South Caucasus. However, there is another truth: it is easier to prevent war in advance than to stop after it has reached Syrian scale. But this fact is usually remembered only after military operations are already under way. Sometimes it seems that crisis managers of the planet are guided by the logic of "don't put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." 

Meanwhile, Armenia has dramatically changed after April. Armenian military leadership was replaced almost entirely as soon as gunshots in Karabakh stopped - Deputy Defense Minister Mirzabekyan, chief of Signal Corps Muradyan, head of military intelligence Karapetyan were dismissed. Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan was dismissed in September. Perhaps, this decision was made not because of a failure on the Karabakh front, but because of domestic and foreign policy reasons. The possibility that Seyran Ohanyan will return to politics is being discussed more and more often in Armenia. Since then Armenian army has received new weapons under preferential loan, provided by Russia. Russian soldiers rolled out Iskander complexes during the military parade in Yerevan - though no one has clarified the issue of whether they Russian or Armenian so far. In any case, it is highly unlikely that they will be used in the Karabakh war - unless a new war on even larger scale will break out. 

Certain hopes in Armenian society were caused by the appointment of Karen Karapetyan as Prime Minister in September - he is kinda non-party technocrat from Gazprom, whose task is to improve the state machine, which fails more and more often. Trust in new people in the government was so great that citizens were even willing to forgive the new Minister of Health from Levon Karapetyan's team for his poor Armenian language - he just has to do a great work. Will Karen Karapetyan and his team be able to change this system, part of which they have, is a difficult question, it's too early to judge. But Karapetyan joined party pretty fast - in late November newly appointed Prime Minister announced his intention to join the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which easily accepted new candidate. It wasn't the most popular step of his, but perhaps it was necessary for political reasons. It can be assumed that Karapetyan received a carte blanche from leadership of the country for the implementation of certain measures to improve social situation of the population, and these actions shouldn't go into his personal political bank, but rather help to raise RPA's rating. But will RPA's tarnished reputation sink Karapetyan or not? For example, as Prime Minister from the Republican Party he is directly responsible for an extremely unpopular measure, adopted recently - 1000 drams were taken from salaries to provide assistance to wounded soldiers or families of dead soldiers. This law caused outrage among many citizens - it's not that Armenians lack patriotism. The problem lies in the fact that people don't believe that corrupt officials won't take money for themselves. There is already a negative example of absolutely non-transparent activities of similar army assisting fund "Martik". 

The time of pre-election intrigue has come in Armenia. Oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan announced his return to Armenian politics. President Serzh Sargyan called him a force of evil" in February of 2015. Chairman of Prosperous Armenia party Naira Zograbyan promised that Tsarukyan will return to politics as oppositioner, but people don't really believe her: Oligarch can't be a part of the opposition in Armenian political realities. It is also noteworthy that Eduard Sharmazanov, vice-speaker of the Armenian parliament from the RPA, began to talk about Tsarukyan in a conciliatory tone. The same thing happened with the first president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, many were surprised when Sharmazanov called him "smart and serious politician." On this background, there are rumors in Yerevan that Tsarukyan and Ter-Petrosyan will help Sargsyan during future elections to the Armenian parliament, shattering opposition electorate and thus allowing RPA to keep power.

There is also a non-systemic opposition, which should not be forgotten. Armed raid of Sasna Tsrer group (Daredevils of Sassoun) and subsequent capture of police station by its members in Erebuni district of Yerevan showed a dangerous tendency in the Armenian society, which reacted pretty positively on the actions of armed men - the tendency of population to justify political extremism for the sake of changing unpopular government. Mass rallies in support of this group showed this, and MP from Heritage party Zarui Postanjyan is still trying to promote the idea of a constitutional "right to revolt." Serzh Sargsyan's government initially made a bet on strength and violently dispersed a spontaneous meeting, but later it decided to act more carefully and show restraint by simply isolating the area. Precise shots by snipers, starvation and exhaustion made Daredevils of Sassoun surrendered.

Saying that 2016 was a successful year for Armenia would be an exaggeration. The fact that there is a stability in the country is a positive thing without a doubt, since it leaves the possibility of theoretical reforms and improvement of economic growth. But the growth wasn't that good in 2016 - instead of expected 2.2%, GDP grew by only 0.5%. National debt of the country grew by 4%, and the ratio of total debt to GDP amounts to 54%. According to the Ministry of Finance of Armenia it is a controllable level. By contrast, Russia's ratio is 15.1%, Azerbaijan's is 20.1% and Kazakhstan's is 24%.

Urgent problems the country is are still unresolved. The demographic situation in Armenia, where the fertility rate is 1.6 children - which means that the population is not reproducing itself - remains problematic. Another negative factor is the outflow of working young people to other countries, which also changes the demographic structure of the country. According to opinion polls, about 44% of surveyed families associate unwillingness to have a second child with a difficult socio-economic situation in the country or even plans to leave the country. In 2016 the population of Armenia amounted to less than 3 million people for the first time in 40 years. 

Karabakh conflict also did not find a solution that meets the interests of Armenia - Armenian diplomacy was unable to get closer to its cherished goal of international recognition of Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state. Leading countries of the world did not change their position, while Armenia itself once again did not dare to adopt resolution on recognition of the so-called Nagorno Karabakh Republic, although such plans have been repeatedly voiced since April. It is obvious that it is impossible to demand others to do what you can't do yourself - in this sense, Armenian diplomacy is in a deadlock.