Monday, February 18, 2008
Sizing Up the "Russian Card" in Armenia's Presidential Vote
A EurasiaNet Commentary by Haroutiun Khachatrian: 02/18/08

Debates about corruption and Nagorno Karabakh may be running strong in Armenia's 2008 presidential campaign, but on the topic of Russia, the country's strongest military ally and economic partner, the candidates stand largely united. Both Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, slotted as the opposition frontrunner, have tried to use the "Russian card" in their campaigns. Moscow, meanwhile, is keeping its preferences to itself.

Unlike neighboring Georgia where some display of wariness toward Russia is de rigeur for politicians, Armenian presidential contenders take a different tact. All nine candidates have declared their commitment to a strong friendship with Moscow.

As often in the South Caucasus, though, the exact nature of that proposed relationship is open to wide speculation.

The most controversial issue to date is a February 11-12 visit by Ter-Petrosian to Moscow. Coming one week before Armenia's election, the trip's timing struck many local observers as significant.

A report by the weekly Argumenti i Fakty (Arguments and Facts) that the former Armenian president had met with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedyev, viewed as the favored contender in the upcoming March 2 Russian presidential elections, strengthened that impression. On February 12, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency denied the report, and pro-government Armenian media have repeatedly disseminated the denial.

An aide to Ter-Petrosian, who requested anonymity, has claimed that the ex-president and Medvedyev had agreed to not comment publicly on their unofficial meeting.

But Ter-Petrosian has not shied entirely clear of commentary about his mission to Moscow. At a February 16 rally in Yerevan, his last for the campaign, the ex-president told supporters that he had concluded from his "many important meetings" in Moscow that "Russia needs an honorable partner enjoying the trust of the Armenian people. For Russia, the current administration of Armenia is not such a partner."

Sarkisian's response to the comment is not publicly known.

Without elaboration, the Ter-Petrosian team - including the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, headed by Yerevan rally moderator Nikol Pashinian - suggests that Moscow does not like the possibility that Armen Sarkisian, a former prime minister (1996-1997) and ambassador to the United Kingdom, might be appointed prime minister under a Serzh Sarkisian presidency. [The two men are not related.] Reasons for Moscow's alleged displeasure are not provided.

Personal preferences could arguably drive much of that assumption. Some of Moscow's actions could, in fact, be interpreted as support for Sarkisian. On January 28-29, Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, leader of the ruling Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) Party visited Yerevan to sign cooperation agreements with the two parties that make up Armenia's governing coalition, Sarkisian's Republican Party and the Prosperous Armenia Party, led by oligarch Gagik Tsarukian. On February 5-6, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zublov arrived to sign bilateral agreements related, among other topics, to nuclear energy.

However, neither Russian official made any statement about the elections or Russia's preferred candidate.

Media also plays a role. All three Russian national channels are rebroadcast in Armenia, and headline-grabbers Sarkisian and Ter-Petrosian have tried to use them to improve their own images among Armenian voters.

The First Channel and RTR tend to portray Prime Minister Sarkisian, head of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, as the strong favorite, downplaying support for Ter-Petrosian. As for Ter-Petrosian, he has reportedly given an interview to the First Channel, but the channel has indicated that it will air only after the February 19 vote.

An interview given by Ter-Petrosian to the Russian daily Izvestia has met a similar fate. In the discussion, published on January 17, Ter-Petrosian outlined his opinion about the alleged existence of a "pyramid of corruption" in Armenia. The article has since disappeared from the Izvestia site, though cached versions have been placed at other locations. One is, a discussion forum for political experts run by pro-Kremlin political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, Commentators have speculated that the article was removed from Izvestia's site after lobbying from Yerevan. The newspaper has not responded to the charge.

Whoever the winner of Armenia's February 19 vote, he will preside over a growing trend for Russian investments; in 2007, mega-deals on everything from banking to communication and energy were signed. 2008 promises to be no different: on February 14, Russian Railways pledged to invest $570 million in the Armenian railway system over 30 years and to handle oversight of the system for that period. An oil refinery project that envisages the construction of a Russian-financed oil refinery in southern Armenia to process Iranian crude oil could prove, if successful, an even stronger connection.

Whoever the winner of Russia's March 2 vote, it is a partnership that Moscow is loath to water down. On February 13, Nikolai Ryzhkov, head of the Armenian-Russian interparliamentary commission, declared Armenia to be Russia's "only strategic partner in the South Caucasus."

"I am confident that the Russian Federation leadership will not allow such a partner to be lost," he said in remarks to RIA Novosti.

Editor's Note: Haroutiun Khachatrian is a freelance writer based in Yerevan.