Armenia: After the 1996 Presidential Elections
|Publication Date||1 March 1997|
|Cite as||WRITENET, Armenia: After the 1996 Presidential Elections, 1 March 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6c014.html [accessed 7 October 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
The Republic of Armenia covers an area of 29,800 km square and has an estimated population of 3.6 million, of whom 93.3 per cent are ethnic Armenians, 1.5 per cent Russians, 1.7 per cent Kurds, and 3.5 per cent Assyrians, Greeks or others. Armenia is bordered by Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and Iran. The republic obtained independence from the Soviet Union on 23 September 1991 and considers itself heir to the short-lived Armenian Republic of 1918-1920. During the century before 1918 its territory was part of the Russian Empire.
In Armenia, the transition from Soviet rule to independence went smoothly. As early as 1989, the Communist elite yielded to the overwhelming popular demand for independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Armenia had de facto already been independent for two years. The post-Soviet political elite expressed ideas about democracy and pluralism that earned Armenia the reputation of being the most democratic of all Soviet successor states, but the introduction of democratic forms and structures was not matched by sufficient tolerance of opposition forces to establish a truly democratic political system. As long as the war in Nagorno-Karabakh demanded national unity the weaknesses of Armenia's democracy did not attract much attention, but after the cease fire of 1994, it has been apparent that the ruling party has increasingly used its position to eliminate all serious contenders for power.
The contested 22 September 1996 presidential election showed how distorted relations between the Government and the opposition forces are, and confirmed doubts about the level of democracy in the republic. Supported by outside reports about irregularities, the main opposition parties refused to recognize the re-election of President Levon Ter-Petrossian. After a mass demonstration in Yerevan on 25 September 1996 ended in the storming of government buildings, hundreds of people were arrested. Among them were a number of opposition politicians who were accused of staging a coup d'état. Tens of protesters faced criminal prosecution in what most foreign observers regard as the third mass political trial in Armenia since 1995.
2. LEGAL BACKGROUND
On 5 July 1995 a new Armenian constitution was approved by 68 per cent of the voters participating in a national referendum. The document replaced the 1977 Soviet Republic of Armenia Constitution. It severely circumscribes the powers of the Legislature relative to the Executive and allocates the President unfettered powers over the government, the judiciary and local authorities. It provides for all basic human rights, but allows most of these rights to be restricted or suspended in times of emergency, the latter in most cases being determined by the President.
Article 99 of the Constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic appoints four of the nine justices of the Constitutional Court, and the National Assembly appoints the remaining five. The President of the Republic also appoints the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court from among the total of nine justices. Given the fact that the presidential coalition has an 80 per cent majority in parliament, the Head of State is in a position to control fully the composition of the Constitutional Court. As it is the Constitutional Court that has the final decision on complaints about election procedures, present Armenian legislation appears to lack an appropriate set of checks and balances as regards the vital issue of parliamentary and presidential elections.
The parliamentary elections and the constitutional referendum of 5 July 1995 were regulated by the 1977 Soviet Republic of Armenia Constitution, the changes and additions to constitutional law passed on 27 March 1995, the 2 April 1991 Referendum Law with subsequent changes and additions and the 4 April 1995 National Assembly Election Law. These documents were in many respects contradictory and imprecise and left open ample possibilities for election fraud. The 22 September 1996 presidential elections were regulated by the 1996 Law on the Elections of the President of the Republic of Armenia and the 1996 Law on the Elections of Local Self Governing Bodies. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed the opinion that these laws were much better than those regulating the 1995 election processes, but severely criticized their implementation.
Because of the dominant role of the President, most cabinet ministers are colourless bureaucrats rather than politicians, with the exception of the Interior, Security and Defence Ministers. These play a vital role because of the importance of the Karabakh issue and the President's inclination to use security forces for political means.
3. POLITICAL BACKGROUND
An important feature of politics in the Caucasus region, including Armenia, is the weakness of formal structures. Many political parties are vehicles for advancing personal interests rather than rallying points for ideological positions. The political spectrum is highly fragmented and the parties lack any firm anchorage in society. To evaluate a politician's position, one would need to know his clan or client relations rather than his official function. Because political relations are taken personally, opposition coalitions are weak, while the ruling party can buy loyalty by granting personal favours.
In the eyes of the public, the political process has been discredited by the shameless enrichment, since 1990, of people close to leading politicians. Some well known "clan leaders" who wield great economic powers are Thelman Ter-Petrossian (the President's brother), Vazgen Sarkisian (Defence Minister) and Vano Siradeghian (Mayor of Yerevan and former Interior Minister).
The major Armenian political parties have their origins in three different sources: the national independence movement of the late 1980's; the historic parties which existed before the communist take-over of 1920 and survived communism in the Armenian diaspora; and, the Communist Party.
The national independence movement dates back to the dissident movement of the 1970's. It became politically relevant in 1988 when the Karabakh Committee was formed to coordinate support for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Most of Armenia's post-communist governing elite originates from the Karabakh Committee. In June 1988 the committee founded the Armenian Pan-National Movement, which obtained a majority in the Armenian Supreme Soviet in May 1990. One of its leaders, Levon Ter-Petrossian, became the Supreme Soviet's new chairman, from which position he led the republic to full independence. The programme of the Armenian Pan-National Movement - which was later to change its name to Armenian National Movement (ANM) - included building an independent national Armenian state on historic Armenian territory, the revival and development of Armenia's national and Christian traditions and values, and the creation of a democratic state, based on the respect for human rights. On 16 October 1991, Levon Ter-Petrossian became President of the republic with 83 per cent of the vote.
Once in power, the ANM modified its original programme. The party, while supporting the Karabakh Armenians, tried to establish good relations with Turkey and the international community, which objected against any infringement on Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. After some initial successes, economic reform slowed down and at present the state is still omnipresent in Armenia's economic life. Despite its dominant position, in 1996 the ANM only had an estimated 10,000 members.
Currently the ANM is the leading member of Republic, the rightist ruling bloc. The other members of the bloc are the Christian Democratic Union, the Social-Democratic Party Gnchak, the Republican Party and the Intellectual Armenia alliance. The Liberal Democratic Party/Ramkavar-Azatakan left the bloc in 1995 in protest against the measures taken against the Armenian Revolutionary Federation/Dashnaksutiun (ARF).
Because of conflicting ambitions and Levon Ter-Petrossian's authoritarian style of government, and because of the modification of the originally radical nationalist principles of the ANM, several leading personalities and groups have left the ANM, most importantly Vazgen Manukian and Ashot Manucharian. In December 1991, the former founded Armenia's main opposition party, the National Democratic Union (NDU). He had been the coordinator of the Karabakh Committee since 1988 and headed the Government in 1990-91. During the culminating phase of the Karabakh war, Vazgen Manukian was acting Minister of Defence until his dismissal by President Levon Ter-Petrossian in 1993.
The NDU's programme seems to be geared towards ousting President Levon Ter-Petrossian rather than radically changing the country's political course. Its criticism of the Government focusses on four issues: insufficient support from the Government for the establishment of an independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh; the alleged pilfering and criminalization of the economy under the guise of privatization and democratization; alleged tendencies to rule through the power ministries and to disregard the law, leading to despotism; the refusal to create minimum conditions for the holding of free and fair elections. In brief, the NDU presents itself as a moral rather than a political alternative to the ANM. These four criticisms are supported by all major opposition parties. Currently, the NDU is Armenia's main opposition party.
Ashot Manucharian, Interior Minister from 1991 to 1992, leads the other main split from the ANM, the Scientific-Industrial and Civic Union of Armenia (SICUA). Not unlike the NDU, the SICUA proposes a cleaning up of Armenia's politics rather than drastic policy changes.
Another political party to emerge from the national independence movement was the National Self-Determination Union, led by former dissident Paruir Hairikian. The party depends on the moral authority that its leader has built over the past ten years. Since 1990, it has become increasingly oppositional. Other nationalist parties with similar origins are the militant Republican Party, the Christian-Democratic Union and the Constitutional Rights Union.
A newcomer is the women's party Shamiram, which was surprisingly successful during the 1995 legislative elections. Shamiram is strictly loyal to the ruling majority and can be regarded as an offspring of the national independence movement in the sense that its leadership is dominated by spouses of ministers and high ranking ANM officials.
The Communist Party of Armenia (CPA) quickly disintegrated after the take-over by the ANM. It lost its assets and most of its 250,000 members. Since then the CPA, led by Sergei Badalian, has objected to the social costs of liberal economic reforms and advocated the restoration of the Soviet Union. Reportedly, the CPA has 45,000 members but their average age is high. In 1991, the pro-reform Democratic Party, led by Aram Sarkisian, split from the CPA.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation/Dashnaksutiun (ARF, also referred to as the Dashnaks) is the historic champion of the struggle for Armenian self-determination. Established in 1890, it ruled Armenia during its 1918-1920 independence period, which was dominated by war with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Combining socialist-revolutionary and radical nationalist ideas, the ARF was severely persecuted by the Soviet regime, while playing a dominant role within the Armenian diaspora. The party is anti-Turkish, pledging to "maintain its commitment to the Armenian people's territorial claims", which dates back to the genocide of 1915. The ARF believes that Armenia's foreign policy should be based on "developing relations particularly with Iran and Russia". The party's headquarters are in Athens, but to comply with Armenian state regulations it was decided in 1996 to give its Armenian section fully independent status. The ARF has played a crucial role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It has dominated politics inside Nagorno-Karabakh for several years and has played a vital role in mobilizing the Armenian diaspora for the secessionist government of Nagorno-Karabakh.
From the start, the ARF has been in sharp opposition to the ANM and Levon Ter-Petrossian, whom it accused of trading vital national interests for short term pragmatic considerations and selling out the national economy to criminals and former members of the nomenklatura. The ARF has suffered badly from government obstruction. Due to the Marxist-Leninist characteristics of its organizational structure, membership is modest with only 4,500 in Armenia, compared with its ability to mobilize at least 40,000 people in Yerevan for its demonstrations.
One reason for the ARF's modest success in Armenian politics is its lack of internal unity. Many members resent the party's recent departure from socialist-revolutionary principles to a form of social-liberalism. Many non-diaspora members feel that opposition to the ANM should also mean opposition to liberal economic reforms. Another factor obstructing the development of the ARF in Armenia is the differences in mentality and experience between Armenians from the diaspora, who speak "West-Armenian" and are well integrated into western society, and the East-Armenians who have been brought up in the Soviet Union.
The other main historic party is the Liberal Democratic Party/Ramkavar-Azatakan (LDP). Dating back to the 19th century, the LDP has traditionally been the party of Armenian intellectuals and businessmen. In 1993, the party had about 2,000 members in Armenia. It publishes one of Armenia's main newspapers, Azg. Initially, LDP's relations with the ANM were good. The LDP joined the Republic bloc, but it has severed its relations with the ANM since the crackdown on the ARF in December 1994.
The third historic party is the Social Democratic Party Gnchak. Founded in 1887 and traditionally the moderate alternative to the ARF, Gnchak is one of the parties loyal to the ANM and a member of the Republic bloc, led by ANM.
4. THE SUPPRESSION OF THE ARMENIAN REVOLUTIONARY FEDERATION/DASHNAKSUTIUN (ARF)
Despite its professed commitment to democratic pluralism, the ANM quickly utilized its political dominance to neutralize its political rivals. First the Communist Party's structures were destroyed by the banning in November 1990 of activities of political parties in state organs and enterprises. Then, on 26 February 1991, the activities of the ARF were restricted with the adoption of the law On Civic-Political Organizations, which banned political parties with headquarters outside Armenia and prevented political parties from receiving assistance from abroad or from having foreign citizens as members or within the leadership. The use of legal instruments to fight the political opposition is typical of the President's attitude: democratic in form, authoritarian in content. The ARF is his primary target, which suggests that the ARF is perceived as potentially the strongest opposition force.
On 17 June 1994, the law On the Legal Status of Foreign Nationals was adopted, several provisions of which seemed to be aimed at crippling the ARF, in particular its prohibition of participation by foreign citizens residing in Armenia in the activities of civic-political organizations. On 10 October 1995 the National Assembly adopted a new citizenship law which ruled out dual citizenship. This primarily affected diaspora Armenians, who had until then been able to enjoy the rights of Armenian citizenship without renouncing the citizenship of their adoptive country. The law frustrated the wish of many diaspora members to settle in Armenia while preserving the advantages of their foreign passports.
In December 1994 dozens of ARF members were arrested following increasing tension between the ARF and the authorities. On 28 December President Levon Ter-Petrossian issued a decree prohibiting the activities of the ARF. He accused the ARF of having established a secret section, a group called DRO, which was allegedly engaged in political terror, drug trafficking, espionage, illegal commercial activities and political murders. He also accused the party of having a foreign leadership. Shortly before the action taken against the ARF, which was accompanied by the closing of opposition newspapers, the relaying of Radio Liberty's Armenian broadcasts had been stopped. On 13 January 1996, a panel of three judges of the Supreme Court decided to uphold the ARF ban for six months on the grounds that its leadership included foreign citizens. The ban was later extended and is still valid.
Following the ban on the ARF, alleged members of the DRO group were arrested. One DRO suspect, Artavazd Manukian, died in custody on 15 May 1995, while awaiting trial. There were allegations that he died due to extensive loss of blood and inadequate medical attention; the State claims that Manukian died of natural causes. On many occasions, the court neglected the rules of due process and the trial was widely viewed as essentially political. On 12 November 1996, the Armenian Supreme Court handed down death sentences to three defendants and sentenced the other eight defendants to three to fifteen years prison terms for "banditism", drug trafficking and two assassinations. However, the Court also ruled that there was insufficient evidence that ARF leader and Karabakh liberation movement organizer Hrand Markarian had led the group, thereby rejecting the President's initial charges against the party. The Courts verdict, however, did not remove all suspicion about direct links between DRO and the ARF. In an interview with Armenpress, the presiding judge at the DRO trial, Eduard Manukian, stated that the evidence presented had been insufficient, but that there remained serious grounds for believing that DRO had indeed been created and led by the ARF.
On 29 July 1995 the ARF Bureau member Vahan Hovanessian and 31 others were arrested on charges of terrorism and of planning to overthrow the Government by force. Like the DRO case, the "case against the 31" has been widely interpreted as a politically inspired legal action. In early 1997, the court proceedings were still going on.
The banning of the ARF and related measures have been severely criticized by international human rights organizations. In their 31 January 1995 report, Human Rights Advocates noted a number of violations of Armenia's international human rights obligations in relation to the decision to suspend the ARF under the following headings:
Freedom of political association:
The Supreme Court Decision upholding the suspension allegedly violates Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Freedom of expression:
Newspapers, journals, magazines and other news media as well as related organizations were shut down, allegedly in violation of Article 19 of the ICCPR.
Minimum standards of due process:
Articles 9, 13, 14 and 17 of the ICCPR.
Derogation from or restrictions on human rights obligations:
Article 4 of the ICCPR as well as alleged violation of permissible restrictions.
On 11 August 1996 the ARF presented a revised party charter to the Armenian Ministry of Justice, seeking thereby to remove the official reason for its suspension, the presence of foreigners among the members and leadership of the party, but the Government has so far regarded the changes as insufficient.
5. THE 1995 LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS AND CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM
In the first post-independence general parliamentary elections of 5 July 1995, the Republic bloc, headed by the ruling Armenian National Movement (ANM), won 20 of the 44 seats allocated under the proportional representation system. The pro-Government women's organization Shamiram took 12 seats while the remaining 12 seats were won by the opposition, including 6 by the Communist Party. The National Democratic Union and National Self-Determination Union and the Christian Democrats claimed 3 seats each. The ANM also gained the vast majority of the seats contested under constituency voting. Overall, the Republic bloc obtained over 80 per cent of the 190 parliamentary seats. The constitutional referendum also became a victory for the Government. The Central Electoral Commission asserted that 68 per cent of voters taking part in the constitutional referendum, held at the same time as the elections, approved the draft constitution.
Immediately after the elections, Union for Justice, a bloc of opposition parties, accused the Government of unprecedented levels of forgery in the elections and of using brute force to achieve its targets. The united opposition forum asserted that the results of both the parliamentary elections and the referendum had been almost entirely falsified, claiming that only 21 per cent of the voters had actually approved the draft constitution.
The OSCE election monitoring group characterized the parliamentary elections as "generally free, but not fair". It cited deficiencies in the electoral process, including a lack of transparency in vote counting, the suspension of the leading opposition party ARF, and the prevention of 5 opposition parties and over 500 opposition candidates from registering. Manipulation of election procedures by the largely pro-Government Central Election Commission (CEC) allegedly contributed to the victory of the ruling coalition. According to the observers there were problems with voter lists, damaged ballots and unsecured ballot boxes. Russian State Duma election observers were said to have witnessed similar flaws.
The independent local election observer organization Vote Armenia alleged in its report on the July 1995 elections that the elections had been undemocratic, unbalanced, unfair and not free. The main violations had been the banning of the activity of the ARF, the closing of opposition newspapers, violations of the principle of the secret ballot, and physical disturbance and pressure used on voters as well as on members of the Election Committees. The group concluded that these violations of the law could have had a significant influence on voting results.
The United States Department of State found that the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and the regional electoral commissions administering the elections and the constitutional referendum were packed with ruling party loyalists and that in addition to the Government's suspension of the ARF, the CEC had used an ambiguous electoral law to deny registration to several other opposition parties or blocs and over 500 opposition candidates on minor technicalities. The CEC ruled on many cases shortly before election day, thereby denying some candidates a fair chance to appeal against the CEC's decision. The Department of State criticized the Armenian Government for having used its monopoly of the media to deny sufficient access to dissenting views and opposition parties.
6. THE 1996 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND ITS AFTERMATH
Considering the waning popularity of President Levon Ter-Petrossian it could have been expected that a united opposition would have a fair chance to win 1996 presidential elections. Three years after the last battles in Nagorno-Karabakh were won, Armenia's population was weary of its penury and the Government experienced increasing difficulty in countering allegations that the economic difficulties were due to state corruption and incompetence.
Initially, all major opposition parties proposed their own presidential candidate. The opposition candidates sounded populist themes, promising substantial wage increases, eradication of poverty and corruption, and the revision of some aspects of privatization. Only in September 1996 did Paruir Hairikian (National Self-Determination Union), Aram Sarkisian (Democratic Party), and Lenser Aghalovian (Artsakh-Hayastan movement) unite behind Vazgen Manukian (National-Democratic Union, NDU). The ARF also endorsed Vazgen Manukian. The other opposition candidates were Sergei Badalian of the Communist Party of Armenia and Ashot Manucharian of the Scientific-Industrial and Civic Union of Armenia.
Levon Ter-Petrossian's program focussed on law-and-order issues, economic reconstruction through liberal reforms, and regional peace. The NDU-led opposition platform envisaged: full independence for Karabakh; state policies based on Armenian national values; formation of a government of national accord by all parties supporting the joint candidate; new parliamentary elections and the adoption of a new constitution strengthening the legislative and judiciary branches vis-a-vis presidential power; an industrial policy encouraging internal producers; a crackdown on "clan interests" which, the opposition said, had prospered under the Levon Ter-Petrossian Government; and finally a stress on social protection measures to accompany privatization. Vazgen Manukian in his acceptance speech accused the current administration of turning Armenia into "a provincial oriental country of small business, lacking industrial and technological potential".
The official outcome of the elections was that Levon Ter-Petrossian won in the first round with just over 50 per cent of the vote. This, however, did not remain uncontested. On 24 October 1996, the former presidential candidates Vazgen Manukian and Ashot Manucharian submitted documents to the Constitutional Court, detailing alleged violations of the law committed during the campaign. The President declared that he would obey any decision of the Court. On 31 October Vazgen Manukian claimed that he had evidence that Levon Ter-Petrossian had only obtained 35 per cent of the vote against 66 per cent for himself.
All international monitoring groups and organizations were highly critical about the way the presidential elections were conducted. In its final report, the OSCE/ODHIR Observer Mission listed "numerous irregularities including some very serious breaches of the election law"; collusion among precinct electoral commissions and the incumbent president's proxies; unlawful presence of the police at voting stations; ballot box stuffing; and refusal by the government-controlled electoral commissions to consider opposition complaints. The mission particularly emphasized that more than 22,000 votes could not be traced to any registered voters, and another 21,000 ballots were missing and unaccounted for. Noting that support for President Levon Ter-Petrossian exceeded the 50 per cent threshold by only 22,000 votes, the mission expressed its "lack of confidence in the integrity of the overall election process" and considered the irregularities sufficiently important to throw Levon Ter-Petrossian's victory into doubt. The mission called for legal sanctions against the officials responsible, but stopped short of recommending cancellation of the election results.
The International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) published an even more critical report, which also seriously questioned the outcome of the elections. IFES monitors witnessed ballot tampering, voter intimidation and the harassment of domestic election monitors. The report listed serious abuses in the vote-counting process and mentioned that only 2,175 out of hundreds of thousands of diaspora and refugee voters had cast their votes.
The Armenian NGO It's Your Choice, which monitored the elections with over 3,000 volunteers, stated in its report: "The official results published by the CEC ... pose a serious question as to the validity of the entire electoral process and the outcome of the presidential elections."
The announcement of Levon Ter-Petrossian's victory and the opposition's refusal to accept the official outcome of the elections were followed by massive peaceful demonstrations in Yerevan's central square on 24 and 25 September. During the evening of the latter day, some of the demonstrators turned violent and broke into the parliament building, where the Speaker and Deputy Speaker were physically attacked.
A government crackdown on the opposition followed. Seventeen prominent opposition figures and over 100 participants in the 25 September events were detained on charges related to Article 74 of the Criminal Code: "participation in mass disorder". Sixteen of the latter group were still being held on this charge at the end of the year. Many detainees were held for 15 days "administrative detention", during which several were reportedly beaten, and access by international humanitarian groups was delayed or denied. Offices belonging to the opposition parties were closed down by law enforcement officials, and several prominent opposition figures were arrested. Eight opposition deputies were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and expelled from the chamber, four deputies were detained on accusations of treason, terrorism and attempted seizure of power.
Amnesty International, the U.S. based Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Watch, the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and a group of Russian democratic deputies immediately lodged protests with the Government about what they considered to be arbitrary arrests, use of violence, disrespect for due process and abolition of political freedoms.
Already on 26 September the Armenian parliament, by a vote of 155-0 with two abstentions, had removed parliamentary immunity from eight opposition deputies in order to initiate criminal charges of treason, terrorism and the attempted seizure of power. In Yerevan, tanks with escorts of special riot police patrolled the streets and throughout the country security forces arrested hundreds of opposition activists. The crisis atmosphere was further aggravated by the statement by the former head of Armenia's secret services, the member of parliament David Shakhnazaryan, that "the threat of a coup d'état looms over Armenia...".
The Government's reaction to the disturbances of 25 September caused strong international criticism. On 14 November 1996, the European Parliament labelled the way the 22 September presidential elections had been conducted a "regression", and called for "new elections in those areas where serious breaches of electoral law were reported [by the OSCE/ODHIR monitors]", because the recorded violations were severe enough to call into question the legitimacy of the entire elections. The resolution also condemned "the undemocratic treatment to which the opposition parties and media have been subjected", and was critical of the deployment of the armed forces, the closing of opposition parties' premises and the arrests of opposition leaders in the aftermath of the elections.
Similar reactions came from a group of Russian State Duma members, who argued that the events of 22-26 September did not require the imposition of a state of emergency and the suspension of the rights and freedoms of citizens under the pretext of an attempted coup d'état attempt. The group judged that the Armenian law enforcement agencies had exceeded their powers and taken inappropriate measures by resorting to direct violence against those taking part in the disorders and against the opposition in general.
On 18 October 1996, the Scientific-Industrial and Civil Union called for a boycott of the imminent local elections, arguing that "violence and falsifications actively supported by mafia groups and encouraged and condoned by the authorities have taken root in Armenia ...". On 25 October, the National Alliance decided not to participate in the local elections; it claimed that a police state had been created and "the tense political climate in the aftermath of the elections has made it impossible to hold fair and democratic elections in Armenia". Eventually all main opposition parties boycotted the 10 November 1996 local elections.
Presidential candidates Vazgen Manukian and Ashot Manucharian's request to the Constitutional Court to declare invalid the official outcome of the elections, was rejected on 21 November. According to Article 102, subsection 2, of the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, this decision was final, without the right of appeal. The way the Constitutional Court handled the case was severely criticized by the opposition leaders, who stated that the Constitutional Court "practically covers up the falsification of the presidential election returns".
The unity that the opposition parties showed before the presidential elections quickly disappeared. The National Self-Determination Union of Paruir Hayrikian and Ramkavar immediately dissociated themselves from the 25 September disturbances. The opposition leaders are, however, at one in asserting that the Constitutional Court's verdict does not legitimize the fraudulent presidential election.
Considering the 1995 ban on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), Armenia's largest opposition party, and the seemingly fraudulent 1995 parliamentary elections, the 1996 crackdown only accentuated the Government's intolerance of any real political opposition. The elimination of the opposition began to have serious consequences for the Government, mainly because Armenia's foreign sponsors started criticizing the ensuing situation. Aware of the desirability of broadening his support outside the ruling coalition, President Levon Ter-Petrossian looked for support from the left parties, the Communists included, who refused to back Vazgen Manukian in the elections. But the first series of meetings in early January 1997 was unsuccessful and there was not expected to be any follow-up. Shortly after his installation, the new Prime Minister, Armen Sarkisian, also made an effort to open a dialogue with parts of the opposition, whom he invited to submit proposals on social and economic issues. During his visit to the USA, the Prime Minister even arranged meetings with an ARF delegation. The Prime Minister also made sweeping statements in favour of political freedom, independent media and transparency in government, and promised early corrective steps on these issues. In another effort to counter international criticism and internal isolation, the Prime Minister announced the abolition of the Ministry of Information and measures to encourage the rivival of an independent press.
Meanwhile, the talks between government and opposition led nowhere and the opposition parties continued to face significant restrictions. The two "DRO" and "31" trials of opposition members also continued, and a third trial - that of participants in last September's disturbances - also began.
The fact remained that the balance within the parliament, where the opposition had only 10 per cent of seats, did not reflect the real political situation in Armenia. Even according to official records, about 50 per cent of voters failed to support the parties which backed Ter-Petrossian. In addition to the European Parliament, the USA also began putting pressure on the Armenian Government to hold fresh elections. A United States Government official said that early elections would be "one way to give the opposition a constructive role and have a more representative and democratic structure". Opposition leader Vazgen Manukian repeatedly said that fresh presidential and parliamentary elections are the only issues the opposition is ready to discuss with the authorities. Both the minor pro-Government parties and the opposition believed that early general elections would relieve tensions, but the chairman of the National Assembly, who could be trusted to express the opinion of the President, categorically rejected this possiblity.
More recently, the Armenian Government took steps to counter external criticism of the state of democracy in Armenia. On 24 January 1997, the National Assembly formed a working group to amend the existing Electoral Law in the light of the considerations and suggestions made by the OSCE after the presidential elections. The following month, a pro-government newspaper with unclear financial sources, Aravot, was closed down and opposition newspapers were given increased means of printing and distribution.
Also in February 1997, a number of opposition groups decided because of their marginalization to form a permanent platform for cooperation, the National Accord. They included: the ARF, NDU, Constitutional Rights Union, Scientific-Industrial and Civil Union, Armenian National Party, Intellectual-Armenia Society, Democracy Defence Fund, National Progressive Party, National Unity Chapter, the National Assembly Deputies' Club, Armenian Relief Cross, Gtutyiun Benevolent Organization, Syunik-Hayasta Organization, and Yeritasardutiune [Youth] Organization.
In Armenia the transition from Soviet rule to independence was a relatively smooth process in which the new elite of triumphant nationalists was able to win over and co-opt a large part of the communist nomenklatura. As a result, at the local level the same people as before independence have often continued occupying positions of power. There is an unhealthy overlap between political, administrative and economic authority, and Armenia's democracy lacks essential checks and balances.
Since 1991, the ANM and its leader, President Levon Ter-Petrossian, have used their political skills and increasingly undemocratic means to outmanoeuvre the opposition and to reduce its role in society. Despite its democratic laws and structures, the country functions as if it still had a one-party system. The legislature lacks any substantial representation of opposition forces; the impartiality of the judiciary has been seriously questioned; all local authorities are led by the ruling party; and the media are generally docile. Because of the condescending way in which they are treated, leading opposition members usually do not attend parliamentary sessions, making the parliament even more of a mockery.
Accusations and personalities, rather than policy, dominate the political debate. President Levon Ter-Petrossian is blamed for the prevalent corruption and the industrial collapse, while he himself states that opposition rule will bring tyranny and chaos. The President appears incapable of addressing the main issues that have alienated so many people - corruption, appointments based on clientelism not merit, and a general sense that the Government has lost interest in the welfare of ordinary people.
The Armenian opposition is too amorphous to produce a serious confrontation with President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who has a keen sense for power and can count on the support of the economic elite. The opposition suffers from several important weaknesses. Apart from lack of unity, it does not offer clear policy alternatives to the economic and security policies of the present government, limiting itself to attacks on corruption and dictatorial methods. Moreover, it faces a government which in practice has monopoly control over the electoral process, including the media and the Central Electoral Committees, and has been ready to abuse the legal system in order to outlaw its challengers. In addition, the opposition has failed to put forward a convincing candidate for the presidency.
A majority of the population appears to be indifferent to the politial struggles. Most Armenians are busy making ends meet and appear to bear the imperfections of the country's democracy with resignation. A survey conducted by Yerevan University sociologists in 1995 found that 66.5 per cent of Armenians believed the suspension of the ARF in 1995 was simply "another political game by the bosses". Deep-rooted distrust of politicians appear to be a major obstacle to the maturing of Armenia's democracy. "People believe they live in a country being run by the mafia", and the opposition is not exempt from such prejudices. There is a widespread belief that politicians - government and opposition - are motivated only by self-interest. Elections, privatization and new legislation are, in the eyes of a disillusioned electorate, merely the covers under which a small corrupt clique can concentrate wealth and power in its own hands, and at the same time present to international observers a picture of transition to democracy and the market economy. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming evidence of election fraud both in 1995 and in 1996, about half of the population of Armenia appear to have voted for the current President.
The mass demonstrations of 24 and 25 September 1996 were exceptional and such outbursts are not likely to be repeated soon, while the opposition has been temporarily immobilized. The Government has showed its capacity to maintain order, but its resort to force has left a widespread suspicion, also abroad, that Ter-Petrossian owes his position to control over the instruments of power, rather than the number of ballots cast in his favour. Public response to the events combined shame - that "civilized" Armenia could sink so low - with gloom, foreseeing a heavier authoritarian rule. There is also a widespread sentiment in Armenia that the country's regression from democracy is undermining its international standing and its leverage with regard to the Karabakh problem at a time when Azerbaijan's prospects are being boosted by its oil-producing potential.
The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.
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