ELECTIONS in former Soviet republics rarely yield surprises. The incumbent wins; the opposition cries foul; it takes to the streets. The presidential vote in Armenia on February 19th ran true to form. Serzh Sarkisian, the prime minister, won 53% of the vote, enough to avert a runoff with his main rival, Levon Ter-Petrossian, with 21%. Mr Ter-Petrossian, a former president, said Mr Sarkisian had stolen the vote even before ballots were counted. Independent observers talked of ballot stuffing and intimidation.It will probably be some time before elections in the Caucasus shed their flair for the dramatic. Even neighboring Turkey, a "pillar of political stability" for over half a decade, is giving the region a run for its money. The possibility of dismantling a ruling party due to alleged anti-secular transgressions would make any intrigue from the Caucasus look like a cheap B-movie.
Whether fraudulent elections or economic concerns, Armenian political debate rarely ventures far from a number of issues related to the country's intimidating western neighbor. Optimists could argue that the newest selection of political personalities in Armenia may indeed prove to be the necessary ingredients for improving relations between Armenia and Turkey. Other than the long-standing quarrel surrounding the Armenian Genocide, one of the most important issues defining poor relations between the two countries is the contemporary dispute concerning Nagorno-Karabakh.
The current conflict that defines this small region dangling between Armenia and Azerbaijan has its origins in the early days of the Soviet Union, and includes an intriguing historical connection to Turkey. Before the Bolsheviks swept through the Caucasus in the early 1920s, the Nagorno-Karabakh region had been traditionally inhabited by both ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples. It had therefore been a point of contention during the short life-span of the newly minted states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the arrival of the communist era in the Caucasus, this conflict would be subsumed under the greater strategic affairs of the Soviet Union.
In 1923 Stalin, who was the Soviet commissar of nationalities at the time, decided to cede Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan as an "autonomous oblast". According to a biography of Georgia's most famous son by Robert Service, Stalin made this decision in order to curry favor with Ataturk's Turkish Republic, which apparently maintained a keen interest in "Turkic affairs" even at that early time.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh experienced a string of bloody conflicts between Azerbaijani and Aremenian military and paramilitary forces. While Armenia received the bulk of its military support from Russia, the comparatively ill-equipped Azerbaijani forces are believed to have been supported by non-Azerbaijani Muslim mercenaries. With Armenia emerging as the nominal victor of the conflict, Turkey has chosen to isolate Armenia politically and economically, possibly with the ulterior motive of deflecting attention away from the Armenian Genocide or inflicting punishment as a result of public-relations discomfort it has caused the Turkish state.
While the fall of the Soviet Union involved a very unpleasant reality check for all those involved in the communist market experiment, the last decade has seen many of these countries make economic progress quite often due to their energy reserves. Over 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the circumstance of the Armenian economy remain dire when compared to any of its neighbors. The financial and travel blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan is largely responsible for its lack of economic progress. Like the economies of its neighbors, the Armenian market and political landscape is riddled with corruption. When considering the question of Armenian-Turkish relations in the near future, it appears that this issue of corruption, particularly as it relates Nagorno-Karabakh, is of great relevance.
The following Voice of America (VOA) article demonstrates the degree to which politicians hailing from Nagorno-Karabakh maintain a stranglehold on the Armenian political process.
Here is a selection of the article's most poignant ideas:
Aram Abramian, editor in chief of the Yerevan-based daily newspaper "Aravot" and who has roots in Nagorno-Karabakh, says Kocharian and Sarkisian brought in associates from the territory who took over state posts and dominated the business elite.
"There are 20, 30 families -- oligarchs -- people who, thanks to the opportunities that are provided to them by the authorities, became rich, and have wide possibilities of avoiding taxes and custom fees," Abramian says, adding that well-connected moguls were able to gain "monopolies" over fuel, sugar, and other commodities.
Among those identified by analysts as part of the Karabakh clan are Kocharian's son, Sedrak, who reportedly controls mobile-phone imports; Barsegh Beglarian, who dominates the gas-station market; Mika Bagdasarov, who controls oil imports and heads the national airline; and Karen Karapetian, head of the Armrusgazard gas company, a joint venture with Russia's Gazprom.
If the ideas advanced by the VOA article are indeed true, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh issue and, as an extension, the future of Armenian-Turkish relations. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh legitimates the political class currently running Armenia. In particular, it distracts the electorate away from the single biggest issue affecting their lives on a daily basis - a sickly economy. As the VOA article suggests, what motivation does Armenia's ruling Nagorno-Karabakh cabal have to resolve the conflict and further improve relations with Turkey in order to resuscitate the economy? A more free-market economic system, involving trade and investment with Turkey, would only undermine their current political and economic existence as it would empower potential opponents.
Turkey, for its part, should also be expected to engage the Nagorno-Karabakh with a more constructive attitude. This is especially the case in light of its role as the region's most important power broker after Russia and its aspirations to join the European Union as a valuable diplomatic partner. Prior to its construction, Turkey offered to route the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through Armenia, allowing its neighbor to collect the lucrative transit fees, in exchange for recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan.
Such a swap would have merely fattened the wallets of the corrupt. More importantly, it would have done little to address the underlying issues stoking the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - disputes between two distinct ethno-religious groups wanting to living on the same plot of land. While a more constructive approach must be demonstrated on Turkey's part, such an expectation may prove foolish. The rising levels of ethno-nationalistic sentiment that could very well mark the post-AKP era of Turkish politics render the possibility of reconciliation with Armenia increasingly unlikely.