In late 2015, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) pushed through wide-ranging constitutional changes to transform the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic by 2018. The December 2015 referendum on the changes was heavily contested, and international and local observers documented serious violations, including alteration of voting results at the precinct level, by HHK supporters to ensure the referendum’s passage. The year 2016 was supposed to be dedicated to smooth preparation for the 2017 parliamentary elections, which HHK has been confident of winning in the absence of any effective opposition. Instead, it was an unprecedented year full of crisis and upheavals in which both external and internal actors challenged Armenia’s equilibrium.
In April, Azerbaijan launched an attack of surprising intensity and temporary effectiveness on the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a de facto independent state internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and supported by the Republic of Armenia. Although the most intense fighting lasted only four days, Azerbaijan’s assault had significant political repercussions in Armenia, generating a public outcry over corruption in the military and shattering trust in the Armenian authorities’ ability to ensure security.
Within a few months, the “four-day war,” as the escalation came to be called, generated serious political aftershocks. On 17 July, a small group of veterans of the 1992–94 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Sasna Tsrer, who are associated with the radical opposition movement Founding Parliament, seized a police station in the Erebuni district of Yerevan, killing two police officers and taking hostages. The hostage takers demanded the release of their leader, who had been arrested in June, and the resignation of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. The Sasna Tsrer justified their actions by blaming the country’s leadership for incompetence in handling the war and international negotiations over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh. In what is becoming a pattern, a small group of nonviolent protesters gathered in the streets in sympathy with these criticisms only to meet a violent crackdown by police, which in turn brought thousands more into the streets. Protests only diminished after a large scale violent police operation in Sari Tagh neighborhood in July 28th that resulted dozens of injured protesters. The hostage takers surrendered on July 31.
The inept handling of the protests and the country’s poor economic performance resulted in the president drastically changing the cabinet in September, including replacing the prime minister. The appointment of new faces to key positions, and their promises of rapid reform in the fields of economy and governance, as well as some initial actions, had an appeasing effect, at least in the short term. These major changes were also perceived as a move to improve the HHK’s image with fresh faces in advance of the crucial parliamentary elections in April 2017, and to advance cadres loyal to President Sargsyan.
Despite these setbacks, the HHK and Sargsyan remained dominant. Indeed, in some ways the crisis strengthened their support from certain opposition parties: for example, the opposition Armenian National Congress and its leader, Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, agreed to support Sargsyan following the four day war. HHK’s dominance, as well as occasional concessions and cooperation with different opposition parliamentary parties, enabled HHK to pass important legislative changes building on the constitutional referendum of 2015 that will redefine the most important formal rules of the game for the upcoming years. Some of the changes were improvements (further liberalization of reporting and funding of nongovernmental organizations, criminal punishment for officials’ illicit enrichment, publication of signed voter lists, etc.) or at least eliminated harmful regulations, such as those partially removing limitations on observer and journalist access at polling stations. However, a majority of the legislative changes were drafted behind closed doors and quickly passed in the parliament without sufficient time for political parties and civic society organizations to have meaningful discussions and input. The changes in 2016 codified a new system of apportioning seats following parliamentary elections that will likely result in the HHK retaining its power even if it underperforms expectations.
As the country prepares for parliamentary elections in April 2017, a newer generation of politicians is attempting to establish a different type of political parties based on grassroots support, more accountable and transparent operations, inclusion of a new generation of politically active groups, and mass fundraising. Nonetheless, it seems the elections are going to be largely contested between the representatives of the old guard, led by the same cast of economically and politically influential individuals and their family members as before.
Outlook for 2017: With the new constitution having shifted power to the parliament, the parliamentary elections scheduled for April will be the most important event of the upcoming year. The fragmented and disorganized opposition might attempt to change the dynamic in the upcoming months, but it is unlikely to be able to oust the ruling HHK due to the formal and informal rules of the game. If the HHK succeeds in the parliamentary elections, the power struggle within the party will become the main topic for attention, since it will determine the trajectory of the country’s leadership and development for the next five years. Armenia’s poor economic performance as well as regional instability will continue to contribute to the volatility of the system.
For the full test visit: https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2017/armenia