CAUCASUS BLOG: Baku and Yerevan offer more bread and circuses

CAUCASUS BLOG: Baku and Yerevan offer more bread and circuses
Mariah Carey performing at the Baku 2017 Formula 1; Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has used glitz and glamour to distract from the country’s economic problems and political repression.
By Carmen Valache in Berlin April 2, 2018

Ostensibly, April promises to be an eventful month politically in the South Caucasus, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan will elect the most powerful person in the state this month. In practice, the votes are foregone conclusions, the winners are already known, and rather than exercising the right to choose their political leaders, the by now blasé electorates in the two countries will have to make do with what they have become accustomed to — bread and circuses. 

The main reason the upcoming parliament vote on Armenia’s new government is of interest is because President Serzh Sargsyan's bid to become prime minister with extended powers when his second presidential term ends on April 9 has been shrouded in secrecy. A veteran military man, Sargsyan has strategically planned his political capital to ensure that he will retain power, despite his growing unpopularity in Armenia.

Sargsyan is the chairman of the ruling Republican Party (HHK), which has controlled Armenian politics for almost two decades. In 2013, the HHK proposed a series of constitutional changes that received popular support in a 2015 referendum to expand the powers of the parliament to the detriment of those of the president, effectively turning Armenia into a parliamentary republic.

The wide-ranging constitutional changes, voted into law in 2016, shrank the parliament from 131 to 101 seats, turned the presidency into a ceremonial office limited to appointing diplomats and okaying decisions made by the parliament, and transferred most presidential powers, including the oversight of the oh-so-important military, into the hands of the prime minister. 

In power since 2008, when he won a heavily contested presidential election that was followed by mass protests in which 10 demonstrators died, Sargsyan has gambled his way towards what looks like a highly probable conclusion: he will become Armenia's next prime minister. 

Enough is enough 

A former military commander and defence minister hailing from the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, Sargsyan's credibility as head of state has always raised question marks and reached its nadir in 2016 amidst month-long protests that demanded that he step down. Starting as Armenians' show of support for a fringe group that had taken over a police station, the demonstrations in the summer of 2016 signalled to Sargsyan and his government that Armenians had had enough. Enough of the power- and money-hungry HHK (Armenia is notorious for the large number of business tycoons in its parliament), enough of corruption, enough of poverty (almost a third of Armenians still live in poverty, according to the World Bank), enough of the continued economic blockade against the country on its Turkish and Azerbaijani flanks which has hampered its economic growth, and enough of the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

It didn’t help that in April that year Armenia lost a small portion of Nagorno-Karabakh and over 100 soldiers in a five-day war with Azerbaijan. It was later revealed — or rather surmised based on a number of layoffs of high-ranking military officials — that Armenia's loss that spring was due to crass military miscalculations and incompetence, something one would not expect when a former military commander is in charge of the country and its military. 

To deflect attention and pressure from himself, Sargsyan moved to fire the then prime minister, Hovik Abrahamyan, in September 2016 and to replace him with a former corporate executive, Karen Karapetyan. 

The gamble has played off. A well-connected Karapetyan has made it a priority of his government to reduce red tape and corruption as much as possible without upsetting vested interests, in order to make Armenia into an attractive investment destination. He has also reached out to the wealthy Armenian diaspora, brokered partnerships with foreigners, and managed to attract $856mn in foreign and domestic investment in 2017. 

Capitalising on the Karapetyan government's results, Sargsyan in January moved to propose that a benign diplomat that has mostly resided abroad since the 1990s, Armen Sarkissian (no relation), take over the now ceremonial presidency in April.  According to the 2016 constitutional changes, the head of state was to be elected by the parliament, and not through a direct vote, starting in 2018. The opposition tried in vain to protest against Sarkissian's appointment on the grounds that he would be a pawn in Sargsyan's and the HHK's power-grabbing schemes, rather than a person that would support democracy and the rule of law in Armenia. In early March, the HHK-dominated parliament voted for Sarkissian to become the country's next president. 

A taste for power 

With that piece of the puzzle in place, Sargsyan has had time to focus on his own future over the past month. As part of the switch from a presidential to a parliamentary regime, the parliament is required to elect a new government after the first president is inaugurated under the new system. If up until now Sargsyan had given ambiguous answers when asked whether he wanted to be the country's next prime minister — and famously denied that he would run in a 2014 interview — he has since retracted those statements, and this past month he has given ever stronger indications that he would step up to the challenge if the party that he presides asks him to do so. For the country's sake, of course. The party will almost certainly ask him, in his quality as their chairman, to become head of government. And he is likely to accept because the formerly reserved military man appears to have developed a taste for power. 

In recent weeks, not a day has gone by without a new member of parliament making public statements about what a great prime minister Sargsyan will make and how there are no other contenders for the role that could compete with his skills and experience. The stars are aligned for the Armenian president to switch to a new office while retaining all his powers. Through proxies and sycophants, Sargsyan has been priming the electorate for the point in time when nothing will change, when, come April 17, 2018, he will continue to rule Armenia while wearing a new hat, very much like Vladimir Putin did in 2008 when he appointed Dmitry Medvedev as his boss. 

That is not to say that his appointment will necessarily be smooth sailing. In response to the almost certainty of his bid for power, a new opposition group formed in Armenia in March. The Front for the State of Armenia has already staged a first protest against Sargsyan's bid to become prime minister, and has vowed to intensify demonstrations in early April. A minority opposition party in the National Assembly, the Yelk Alliance, has also threatened to disrupt parliament sessions in early April by organising peaceful protests in order to prevent Sargsyan's nomination as prime minister.

But, if the past is anything to go by, protests will not deter Sargsyan. In fact, the only dilemma left for him to solve is what to do with Karapetyan, the current prime minister. For the parliamentarians who vouch that there are no viable contenders for the role other than Sargsyan appear to conveniently forget a candidate hiding in plain sight — the current prime minister, who has been doing a fairly good job for the past year and a half at promoting economic growth and attracting investment. 

Sidelining Karapetyan would risk alienating his wealthy supporters in the Armenian diaspora, something that Sargsyan is likely to want to avoid. Just how exactly he will dethrone Karapetyan while retaining his support base remains to be seen, but the next two weeks should help elucidate this conundrum. 

Who’s laughing? 

More so than Armenia, Azerbaijan will bring out the big guns in April. It will carry out the charade of a presidential election on April 11 that will likely be as much of a joke as past elections (the joke is on the people of Azerbaijan). It will bring out an entrenched oligarch, a bunch of make-believe opponents, and international election monitors whose reports no media outlet in the country cites because they paint a fairly grim picture of the reality on the ground, and because there is no media freedom in the country so if they reported on inconvenient truths they would face severe repercussions. 

To top it all off, Baku will also bring out the glitz and the glamour this month, for the third edition of Formula 1 Baku will take place at the end of April and the event will be graced, as always, by A-list names like Christina Aguilera, as well as the UK's up-and-coming solo artist Dua Lipa and funk band Jamiroquai. If there was ever a situation that most closely resembled the definition of "bread and circuses", it would be Azerbaijan this April. 

But let us start at the beginning. The country is currently ruled by President Ilham Aliyev, who has been in power since 2003, and the party that he chairs, the New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). De facto, Aliyev and those close to him control all the branches of the government, the legislative power, much of the economy, the central bank, the media and, effectively, most of the country. Aliyev came to power in the aftermath of his late father's death. Heydar Aliyev was widely respected in Azerbaijan, and deemed to be the man who helped end the bloody war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and, by signing the country's first oil contract with foreign companies in 1994, set in motion an oil-fuelled economic boom. 

A charismatic man of the people, Heydar Aliyev was a former KGB operator who was wise enough to understand that a certain degree of freedom was necessary to keep people happy amidst the post-war mess in which the country was enmeshed in the 1990s. However, when his son took the reins of the country, things took a turn for the worse. 

Slowly, but surely, government critics began to be targeted in premeditated attacks and arrested over weirdly similar charges — drug possession, disturbing public order, tax evasion (how many tax evading, drug addicted journalists can there be in a country of less than 10mn?). Some of them were killed in public places, on their way home from work. Fearful opposition politicians, civil society representatives and journalists started leaving the country. Some brave ones chose to stay, and suffered dire consequences. 

As the number of investigations into the wealth of Aliyev's family mounted, so did the extent of the crackdown on freedom of speech. Government surveillance further intensified during and after the Arab Spring, for Aliyev was the textbook case of a dictator that could have been toppled in a popular uprising, and made sure to do everything in his power to stay in power. The failure in governance has been coupled with two waves of economic recession in the past decade. The most recent one started in 2014 on the back of a dramatic drop in oil prices, a commodity on which Azerbaijan continues to rely for budget and export revenues. 

But through it all, Aliyev has put on a brave face, resorting to all sorts of diversionary tactics to gain the sympathy of Azerbaijanis and of the international community. Since 2012, his government has hosted numerous international sporting and cultural events, ranging from the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 to its own (costly) version of the Olympic Games in 2015. Oil money has attracted stars like Shakira, Rhianna, Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias, Pharrell Williams, Lady Gaga, Nicole Sherzinger and the Black Eye Peas to come and perform in its capital city Baku. 

Aliyev under pressure

But while Aliyev's tactics may have fooled some of the electorate in Azerbaijan, who believe (correctly) that there is no viable alternative to him (that may have to do with the fact that he has rid himself of all the alternatives), it backfired on a large scale internationally. Repeated revelations in recent years have shed light on the Azerbaijani government's corrupt practices, on its bribery of European officials and companies, and on its relentless pursuit of government critics. Azerbaijan's image has suffered so much, that it is rare to find a self-respecting European leader that would hold a bilateral meeting with Aliyev these days. Additionally, the anti-Azerbaijani corruption campaign is gaining steam thanks to celebrities like Bono and the Clooneys

Fast-forward to 2018: Aliyev is still ploughing on. Oil prices are up as of the second half of 2017, and, timidly, the economy is beginning to recover. In 2019, Baku will start exporting 16bn cubic metres of gas to Turkey and Europe — given its fall from grace with the international community, oil and gas are among the few arguments that Baku has left to remain internationally relevant. Gas will also bring in additional state revenues, so the medium-term economic prospects for the country are good. 

Aliyev has a good stomach for politicking, and his pawns still maintain, with a straight face, to anyone who cares to listen that "all the democratic freedoms are respected in Azerbaijan", that "the aggressor [Armenia] has staged a slander campaign against Azerbaijan", and that "Azerbaijan is the subject of an international conspiracy" which is responsible for all the bad press it has been getting lately. The tractable Azerbaijani media reports these statements ad literam, people read them, some believe them, and so the story goes. A never-ending vicious circle of make-believe democracy. 

But back to the presidential election in April. The election was originally supposed to take place in October. In February, Aliyev decided to move it to April. He did not explain why, so people speculated that it was so that it would coincide with the Armenian election, among other possible reasons. That Aliyev will win the election is very likely, for the election process in Azerbaijan is a farce. In theory, a central election commission (CEC) oversees the democratic process, opponents are free to register to run in the race and to receive fair coverage in the media, and international election monitors ensure that Azerbaijan abides by its international commitments related to human rights and democracy. 

In practice, Aliyev threw his most serious rival, Ilgar Mammadov, behind bars in 2013; 141 other political prisoners are also in jail at the moment, according to a recent report by a group of civil society representatives, and many more are in exile. Seven presidential candidates were banned from registering in the race his year without explanation. Those that were allowed to run are mostly old-timers that have competed before but barely gathered any votes. One of them, Hafiz Hajiyev, nicknamed Hafiz the Fish, is an eccentric character known for his boisterous and crass behaviour in public places; definitely not presidential material in a country of conservative social mores like Azerbaijan. 

Like Armenia, Azerbaijan had a recent referendum to expand the president's powers; in 2016 an overwhelming majority of the electorate voted for the presidential term to be prolonged from five to seven years and for the president to decide on his line of succession, among other things. (Spoiler alert: Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban as his vice president in 2017 and, as per the referendum, the requirement for presidential candidates to be over the age of 35 has been scrapped, meaning that his son will soon be eligible to run when his father steps down. Chances are that ruling Azerbaijan will remain a family business for a little while longer.) 

This has been a lengthy and opinionated blog rather than straightforward reportage. But that is because this writer does not know how else to cover the sham that are the elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan. For more objective, factual information, you could refer to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent an election monitoring mission to Azerbaijan in March. Their report describes in perhaps more objective language the situation I wrote about above. To quote a few snippets from it, "many election observation mission interlocutors stated that they do not expect the election to be genuinely competitive"; "the composition of [the] CEC reflects the representation of political forces in parliament. Some interlocutors opined that this may limit the impartiality and independence of the election administration"; "other interlocutors noted a large discrepancy between the number of registered voters and the number of citizens of voting age"; "interlocutors noted that traditional media lack impartiality"; "interlocutors expect very few complaints to be filed in this election". 

There you have it — what to expect from Armenian and Azerbaijani politics this April. The answer, in a nutshell, would be more of the same. For all their differences, the political leaders in the two countries appear to be cut from the same cloth. The type of cloth that likes to cling on to power.