Carnegie hosted a panel of Armenian non-governmental experts who discussed the democratic backsliding, economic challenges, and foreign policy issues that have characterized the past twenty years of independence. The Honorable John Evans, former U.S. ambassador to Armenia, moderated the discussion.

Politics and Poor Governance

  • Centralized Power: Since the mid-1990s, the Armenian government has consolidated power and exhibited more authoritarian tendencies, noted Yerevan-based journalist Emil Danielyan. He explained that the president exerts complete control over all branches of government. Moreover, there is no independent media coverage of domestic politics because “broadcasting media is under the control of the presidential office,” noted Levon Barseghyan from the Asparez Journalist’s Club. However, Danielyan added, Armenia is neither a dictatorship nor an authoritarian regime because the opposition and civil society have a voice.

  • Electoral Fraud: Panelists said that a series of flawed elections had created a democracy deficit in the country. Since 1999, roughly 25-30 percent of votes in parliamentary and presidential elections have been purchased by government proxies and oligarchs, asserted Barseghyan. Over the past 12 years, there have been major violations in electoral processing and miscalculations of votes at polling stations, he added. “Armenia is not a democracy for the simple reason that we do not have elections that are widely recognized as free and fair,” concluded Danielyan.

  • Crisis of Legitimacy: The Armenian government suffers from a lack of legitimacy, argued Danielyan. This absence of legitimacy “not only fuels popular cynicism and apathy but also undermines civil society and weakens Armenia’s independent statehood,” he said. It also makes it more difficult to address issues such as corruption, social injustice, and weak rule of law.

  • Rule of Law: Courtrooms are well furnished and judges are well paid, but “there is no justice in the courts, unfortunately,” asserted Barseghyan. “The rule of law has become the law of the ruler,” argued Richard Giragosian from the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

  • Lost Opportunities: Giragosian characterized the past twenty years of independence as a period of “lessons lost” rather than lessons learned. The major threat to Armenian security is “continued isolation and insignificance,” he argued. Indeed, as Alexander Iskandaryan from the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute pointed out, Armenia has only two real neighbors: Georgia and Iran.

  • Economy: Armenia’s isolation, lack of natural resources, and small market tend to deter foreign investors, noted Iskandaryan. Nevertheless, the European Union is Armenia’s most important trading partner. Armenia’s weak economy is a result of what Giragosian referred to as “conflict economics” during the 1990s that fostered the rise of “commodity-based cartels” and the creation of a “closed economic system” largely dependent on remittances from Russia. In order to stimulate economic growth and create a true middle class, politics and business must be separated, Iskandaryan argued.

  • The Shadow of Karabakh: The unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh acts as “a driver and determinant” of Armenia’s political system and contributes to an “increasingly narrow political discourse” that favors militancy over moderation, argued Giragosian. However, Karabakh Armenian elites who have dominated Armenian political life for over a decade are “the last of the Mohicans” and nearing the end of their reign, he added. Although outright war ended in 1994, Armenia effectively remains “in a de facto state of cold war with Azerbaijan,” noted Iskandaryan.

  • Foreign Policy: Armenia pursues a balanced foreign policy such that “Russia thinks Armenia is pro-Western and the West thinks that Armenia is pro-Russian," said Iskandaryan. The main priority is meaningful engagement with Turkey and Russia, explained Giragosian. He argued that rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey has the potential to transform the South Caucasus in a positive way. Armenia’s current strategy, he added, is to “sustain the momentum in Armenian-Turkish diplomacy on a Track II level.” He suggested that Yerevan should also reevaluate its asymmetrical relationship with Moscow and start to demand more from its Russian ally.