Armenia: A Country at a Crossroads
This country on the eastern fringes of Europe goes to the polls in crucial parliamentary elections this April
In its first elections since becoming a parliamentary republic in a controversial constitutional referendum in 2015, Armenia faces one of the key moments in its post-Soviet history.
The history of this small South-Caucasian republic has been far from straightforward. The Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide decimated the country’s population between 1915 and 1917, although Turkey refuses to accept that the events of the period constituted genocide, resulting in a thorny relationship between the neighbouring countries. It was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922, before gaining its independence in 1991. It is now engaged in Europe’s oldest ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Like so many countries in Eastern Europe, Armenia is caught in a tug of war between Russia and the EU. In 2015, its president Serzh Sargsyan decided against signing a EU Association Agreement in favour of joining the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. On March 3 this year, however, Armenia did conclude talks on a trade deal with the EU, which is now subject to being finalised in May.
Sargsyan’s ruling Republican Party have dominated elections in the country for the past 10 years. Unrest has been growing recently, though, with armed men seizing Erebuni police station in Yerevan, killing one policeman and taking nine hostages. Thousands took to the streets to support the hostage-takers, with the state accused of putting down these protests with stun grenades, beatings and mass detentions. A re-intensification of clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in December 2016 has only added to the volatile political atmosphere.
Despite the decision to become a parliamentary republic in 2015 making the executive more accountable and transparent in theory, critics have accused Sargsyan of using it as a way to remain in charge by running for Prime Minister (the most powerful job under the new constitution) when his second and final presidential term ends in 2018. The leader of the opposition Heritage Party, Raffi Hovannisian, described the move as an attempt to establish a single political party-state and “enslave the people of Armenia”.
With a proposed thaw in relations with Turkey put on hold in 2010, and their principal ally Russia now selling a large amount of arms to their bitter enemy Azerbaijan, Armenia finds itself in a tricky position. It remains to be seen whether April’s elections will bring increased stability or further uncertainty.