Armenians go to the polls to elect their fifth National Assembly on Sunday, May 6. Since its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia has suffered from rampant corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude in addition to larger economic issues and a devastating 1988 earthquake. Moreover, a territorial dispute involving neighboring Azerbaijan and a troubled historical legacy with Turkey have sealed shut a majority of the landlocked country’s borders.
Suffice it to say, then, that the Republic of Armenia has more than its fair share of domestic and international issues. Unfortunately, national and local voting has proven to be among them. The credibility of most Armenian governments has been wanting due to lackluster elections. Most politicians likewise fail to inspire confidence in the people.
But two of the most prominent political figures in the country today are popularly categorized as outside the mainstream—and both are graduates of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Raffi Hovannisian was born and raised in California. After attending UCLA, he received the Fletcher Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy in 1982, followed by a law degree from Georgetown University. Hovannisian was among the earliest Diasporans to make his way to the homeland on the brink of independence, just as the USSR was collapsing. Recognized by the emerging leadership of Armenia, Hovannisian was made the new republic’s first foreign minister. While he resigned after a year due to a policy dispute, Hovannisian is credited with putting together the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from scratch.
Vartan Oskanian’s story is quite different. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, Oskanian made his way to the United States after having received an engineering degree in Soviet Armenia. He went on to study at Tufts and Harvard, as well as at The Fletcher School. He too was an early arrival to the newly independent Republic of Armenia, serving in the foreign ministry and making his way up the ranks to achieve the post of foreign minister during the presidency of Robert Kocharian from 1998 to 2008. Oskanian was highly regarded during his time in office as a professional, respectable statesman, an attribution that Armenians rarely grant their politicians.
What is the role of these two public figures in the upcoming elections?
Raffi Hovannisian remained politically active after his brief time in the government. In 2002, he founded a national liberal political party, regarded as one of the most transparent members of the opposition. The party garnered a few seats in the last parliamentary elections, but, as has been the case with most elections in Armenia, the results were disputed and the voting was widely seen as neither free nor fair. The party and its leader are in the running this time as well.
For his part, Vartan Oskanian founded a think-tank and civil society organization after his decade-long tenure as foreign minister; included among the board members is The Fletcher School’s own Dean Bosworth. The organization is at the forefront of civil society activism in the country, with a popular online media outlet.
In the run-up to this year’s campaign season, Oskanian formally resigned from the board of that organization and joined one of the political parties of the present ruling coalition. This has provoked mixed reactions, as the leadership of that party is widely acknowledged to be tied to organized crime and “the oligarchy.” Oskanian also suffers from a tarnished reputation following his role in the violent aftermath of the presidential elections of 2008. Nonetheless, he is still perceived to be a capable politician, and there is hope that his presence on the party list will increase transparency in the voting process, thereby ensuring a more legitimate parliament.
The bottom line is that free and fair elections would make a real political difference for the people of Armenia. The inhabitants of the country have been robbed of their vote on just about every occasion. A disenfranchised citizenry leads to a disenchanted people and, indeed, emigration has been on the rise—a worrying phenomenon for an already underpopulated country.
Raffi Hovannisian and Vartan Oskanian may be only two individuals, but their presence and participation could be decisive. With a better distribution of power and with greater popularity, proper elections might end up being the only rational compromise among the political players of Armenia.