- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
February 20, 2004

Outside Eye: A non-Armenian's view of life in his adopted home

Last week I listed reasons to be cheerful about the state of life in Armenia. So this week, here's the flipside.

The political culture in Armenia , by comparison with developments across many other spheres, remains stunted and immature. Indeed, it has decayed considerably since the heady days of the liberation struggle of the late 1980s, when the collective wit and political wisdom of the Karabakh Committee succeeded in challenging and eventually collapsing a totalitarian empire.

Matched against today's political actors, such men would rank alongside the Founding Fathers of the American revolution. Unlike their American predecessors, however, those who made Armenia 's revolution have already been consumed by it - virtually none any longer play a leadership role in the country's politics.

That is just one indicator of the poor health of the body politic. The continued reliance on personality politics, with parties organized around powerful individuals rather than on philosophical and policy lines, further demonstrates the shallowness of the culture. Parties form and dissolve, alliances are forged and broken, on little more than whether the personalities involved can get along.

Most damning, however, is the disengagement of the young from the political process, driven away in disgust by the endemic corruption in the system. They see that people are not in politics for noble reasons of service and struggle, but for what they can get when it is their turn to grasp the reins of power.

It is impossible to imagine any circumstances that would again convince hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in demonstrations of solidarity, as they did at the start of the Karabakh campaign in 1988. Georgia 's recent “Rose Revolution” served to remind many in Yerevan just how far they had fallen from those days.

Even when people do take to the streets, it only highlights the immaturity of much of the political opposition. Exactly a year ago, Robert Kocharyan narrowly failed to win re-election as President in the first round of an election marred by blatent and widespread fraud.

In the tense days leading to the second-round run-off, the opposition repeatedly called street rallies of supporters to apply pressure on Kocharyan to go, ending each meeting by telling people to turn out again the next day.

It was a pointless exercise, leading nowhere, and eventually numbers dwindled as people lost interest in standing around on a cold winter's day to hear long-winded speeches. Unlike in Georgia , the opposition did not know why it was calling people out onto the streets, other than as a demonstration of dissatisfaction.

As the numbers slowly dwindled, Kocharyan's administration could reassure itself that antagonism towards it was not so deep-rooted after all. Yet I learned recently that the opposition came much closer than it realized to success in seeking to oust Kocharyan from power.

I gather that discussions took place at a number of levels within government, including among the military and police, about defecting from Kocharyan to the “popular” forces of the opposition if the demonstrations snowballed into widespread outpourings of public discontent.

Kocharyan's fate, it seems, really hung in the balance in those February days. But the opposition lacked the political skills to capitalize on the moment and the danger passed. Now again, opposition leaders are trying to whip up public support in demonstrations for a “referendum of confidence” against the President, a device intended to force him out.

It won't work, Kocharyan may lack the attributes of a statesman but he is a skilled political survivor and knows how to hang on to power. Besides, the only thing that unites the opposition (and even then only loosely) is their desire to bring down Kocharyan – they have no coherent idea of what they would do next if they succeeded.

And so it continues. A closed class comprised of clan relations and corruption has formed itself into a self-perpetuating political oligarchy, while the rest of the country turns its back in revulsion or resignation.

Democracy doesn't survive in such stagnant waters and that's the real risk that Armenia faces. Unless ways can be found to energize the young and engage them in shaping the future of their country, then the political culture will continue to wither and the corruption that so many complain about will fester ever more poisonously.

According to Agnes


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  Photo of the week
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Ombudsman Appointed

Ombudsmanship proves to be women's job in South Caucasus. Larisa Alaverdyan, Armenia's first ombudsman, was appointed by President Kocharyan, Thursday, February 19. Armenia is the third country of the region to appoint a woman for this position of human rights protector.



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